The cast list posted outside the Parker Playhouse is quite unimposing. In alphabetical order, it lists the players in hand stenciled black letters reminiscent of the endearing roughness of summer stock.
There, ninth in a list of 11, is the name: Elizabeth Taylor.
"This is a whole new chapter in may life," says Taylor, a.k.a. Mrs. (Sen.) John Warner of Washington D.C. and Middleburg, Va. The new chapter is this: At the age of 49, with 54 movies behind her, she is preparing to make her Broadway debut, after warm-ups in Florida and, starting Tuesday, a six-week run at the Kennedy Center. She plays Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman's 1939 hit, "The Little Foxes," which is set in 1900, a time of elegant styles that set off Taylor like a jewel in a velvet box.
The new chapter is also this: Elizabeth Taylor, member of the company. "There's not much private or social life," she says of her schedule in the theater. "I hang out with the family a lot."
"The family" is the company, which includes Maureen Stapleton, Anthony Zerbe, Dennis Christopher ("Breaking Away"), and seven other actors, the stage managers and director Austin Pendleton. "Family is the closet you can describe it to outsiders," says Christopher, 26, who plays Regina's incomparably foolish nephew. "We're just a bunch of actors." The Star
Elizabeth Taylor likes being interviewed about as much as going to the dentist. She welcomes the press only when it suits her, and then says only the barest minimum to keep up the pretense of an interview. After the notebook is put away, she is jolly, garrulous, amusing, earthy.While it is out, she is like a child who has been told that if she doesn't eat her dinner she won't get any dessert -- with the added steel of a woman who, like Regina Giddens, is accustomed to getting exactly what she wants.
Her dressing room is no larger than the others' but it is carpeted in white, and the narrow bed is covered with a matching spread and pillows. There is a tank of goldfish in one corner. "One is blue. She's named Elizabeth," Taylor says.
Her three costumes (one for each act, and each so spectacular that occasionally the audience applauds them) hang fron racks with the elaborate underskirts that add to their authenticity.Her mirror is festooned with telegrams, and vases of flowers wilt slowly under the lights. There is a small refrigator and a few bottles of liquor.
On stage, Taylor looks fabulous, her every entrance a stunning moment. Regina is described in the script as "a handsome woman of 40." Taylor is almost too beautiful for the part; she makes one wonder how such a belle could have been buried in a small southern town for so long.
Offstage, she looks equally well -- not 40 perhaps, but healthy, tanned and fit. She is wearing pink slacks and a knit top and backless high heels that she kicks against the edge of the bed during the interview. She is asked the inevitable:
"I don't like questions about my weight because I don't think it's anybody's damn business," says the woman who four years ago told a Richmond magazine "I don't want to starve mayself because my looks don't matter that much to me." But she has lost a lot of weight, and every other person in the audience mentions it. "Just say I did it for the part, okay?" she snaps.
She does not see herself as beautiful, she says. Pretty? "I think I'm a nice person," says the woman whose looks set the ideal for a whole generation of women whose adolescence paralleled her highly publicized transition from child star to teen-age beauty.
"I see something I make up," she says of her face. "I have hair I comb. It's something I look at in the morning. I don't analze my face. It's just an image I know very well. I don't contemplate my kisser." She gives a bored yawn and stretches. "'Scuse me."
Who does she think is beautiful? "Mrs. Sadat. Ava Gardner. Katharine Hepburn. Lena Horne."
When producer Zev Bufman happened to sit next to Taylor at the National Theatre for the opening of his production of "Brigadoon" last September, he "offhandedly" suggested that she do a Broadway play sometime, according to his version of the story. "Why don't you call?" she answered. He did.
Early stories that she was going to repeat her role of Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" proved to be false. "Martha is the most grueling part ever written," she says. "I wanted to do something meaty, but I didn't want it to kill me."
The choices narrowed down to "Foxes" and Noel Coward's "Hay Fever," a comedy of manners about an aging actress and her wacky household. To help her decide, she and Bufman invited some 20 working actors to Taylor's New York apartment to read the plays aloud with her. "It was Zev's suggestion, so I guess it's been done before," she says, as though having plays audition for the actress is an ordinary practice in the theater world.
After a "meeting" with Hellman, who also reviewed most of the other actors before they were hired, Taylor settled on "Foxes," because "for my first play I'd rather do drama. I'm more used to drama."
"The Little Foxes" first opened in New York in 1939, with Tallulah Bankhead in the role of Regina Giddens. It is set in an unnamed small town in the South where Giddens and her equally ambitious brothers, Ben and Oscar Hubbard, live a comfortable middle-class life but dream of riches beyond the scope of the small town in which they have attained power. The vehicle for their dreams is a Northern industrialist they have persuaded to build a mill in their town, attracted by the low wages of nonunionized workers. One of the brothers married up -- to an aristocratic Southern belle (played by Maureen Stapleton) who has become a sweet, increasingly isolated voice of decency in a family consumed by greed.
"I'm not trying to compete with other Reginas before me," Taylor says. "I want to give her a new aspect, a new dimension . . . She's a woman who's been pushed into a corner. She's killer - but she's saying, 'Sorry fellas, you put me in this position.'"
Taylor says she felt no nervousness about starting rehearsals, nor any responsibility to prevent the other actors from being intimidated by her; she does not feel lthat she has any past reputation as a Star to overcome: "I don't think anybody on any of the sets I've worked on would say that.
"From the day we started working we were an ensemble. We were a team. If anything, I was the outsider, the interloper. So I was the one who could have been nervous about working with the pros."
She had to learn to project her voice, she said, but didn't take any special coaching. "I just asked the other actors if they could hear me." She has no understudy.
She does have typical actor's nightmares: "Like you've committed yourself to a play -- not the play you're doing -- and you haven't been given the script, and it's opening night and you're all dressed and someone's pushing you on stage and you don't even know the plot or any of the lines.Or you're two of three hours late and you have no time to put on the costume of the wig and you just have to go out there. Oh, they're awful. I guess they're just the nightmares of not being prepared."
Actually, she says, "I'm amazed I'm not more nervous; that I'm enjoying it as much as I am. I derive real pleasure from it."
Rehearsals began in February in New York and the show opened late that month in the Parker Playhouse, a "winter stock" theater, on Taylor's 49th birthday. The cast gave her a weathervane with a fox on the top for a birthday present.
A local policeman has been hired as Taylor's bodyguard. He drives her to the theater every night in a new $100,000 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow from the posh yacht club where she stays. "I'm not a per se bodyguard," he told a local newspaper. "I don't have to sit out in the car and watch the car. I sit in her apartment, take my jacket off and have a glass of orange juice."
He protects her from over-zealous fans, whom Taylor obliges by signing autographs, sometimes from a stack of Photographs, sometimes from a stack of photographs kept in the trunk.
With that kind of a reputation to uphold, Elizabeth Taylor is taking a big risk in doing a play, and the other actors in the company admire her for it. Exposing yourself on stage is unlike any other exposure, a nakedness unprotected by lavish costumes and expert makeup. There are no retakes, no skillful editing.
"I always planned to do a play at some point in my career," says Taylor. "Did I think about the risk? For about half an hour. I don't expect to fail. People's pay their money and I have a responsibility to give them their money's worth."
But then, Elizabeth Taylor has always liked to surprise people. Nobody expected her to get paid a million dollars for "Cleopatra," or marry Eddie Fisher, or leave Eddie Fisher for Richard Burton, or adopt a handicapped child, or sell a diamond to build a hospital in Botswana, or convert to Judaism or marry a man and help him become a U.S. senator. She does like to surprise, right?
She just laughs. Long and loud. The Family
Maureen Stapleton is 55 and makes no pretense about looking it. She has a head of stiff gray hair and a face that is a comfortable recliner compared to Taylor's Chippendale armchair. Her career in the theater is astounding, filled with premieres of Tennessee Williams' works (he came to the "Foxes" opening in Fort Lauderdale) and classics old and new. She inspires awe and respect among the theater cognoscenti, and has her own ardent group of fans that applaud her.
In her dressing room at the Parker -- carpeted in the standard red shlock, with an uncovered bed and a broom in the shower -- she looks, in a frumpy housedress and mules, like anything but a star.
"Lillian Hellman asked me to do the part," she explains. "I said I didn't think I could. She [the part of Birdie Giddens] is an aristcrat, and I am not by any means. Also, I said, I'm very heavy.' And Lillian said, 'Well, you can do something about one of those things."
In the end she took the part because it was a good part and a good play, and she didn't have any other offers at the moment. "I suppose if enough people [in the play] say she's an aristocrat, the others will believe her. I just pretend I must have something else."
Stapleton is working on her Southern accent. "I found since I've been down here my accent has just dissipated. By the end of the third act I'm almost soundling like Brooklyn."
The hoopla doesn't bother her, nor did the prospect of working with a "movie star" like Elizabeth Taylor. "I worry about my part, that's all." She doesn't mind that so much attention is being directed at Taylor where in another cast she might be the most prominent member. It's another part to her, another challenge, another job. In fact, she prefers movies: "You get two days off and lots more money."
"Maureen was a real icebreaker," said Dennis Christopher. "We gather in her dressing room and tell stories." She's staying at a nearby hotel, does little else but work on her part and go back and forth. "I might as well be in Philadelphia," she says.
Last Sunday was their only day off and Taylor chartered a yacht and a lot of food and treated the whole cast to a little cruise. "One of the perks," Stapleton says with a grin.
Tom Aldredge, who plays Regina's invalid husband, Horace, is another veteran New York actor with a distinguished career. He is as mystified as anyone else by the unending fascination Taylor seems to have for the public. "I think it must have to do with the paucity of experiences in the average person's life," he says. "They try to get it wherever they can."
Aldredge thinks "the sharpened pencils" up North -- the pres and the skeptics -- will be "as astounded by her as I was. She knows what she's doing. She makes very astute choices, and she knows how to protect herself from the three-ring-circus aspect. She could have gotten a lot of TV stars [for the cast], but they chose mostly people with serious stage experience. She has a keen sense of observation, and a keen sense of what is good for Elizabeth."
The play, written by a Southernbred Jewish woman with radical politics, is commonly described as a story about greed. "The play is about the making of America," Aldredge says. "These are the people looked on as our founding fathers, the industrial core. It's not a very pretty picture of how this country get its might."
"Elizabeth has a lot of generoisty and energy that come out of her," says director Austin Pendleton. "So I thought this Regina is someone who has capacities in other directions. She has trememdous appetites. It's not a dry greed. They are two passions mismatched, she and Horace."
Pendleton says that in his conception of the play, he thinks that Regina and her unmarried brother Ben are unconsciously in love, so he wanted a "sexy" actor for the role of Ben (Anthony Zerbe). And for the other brother, also a man of questionable ethics, he wanted someone "appealing," despite his transparent weakness (Joe Ponazecki).
In any case, he says, he has never been involved in a production that attracted so much publicity. "I couldn't believe it -- The New York Times actually ran a story that Lillian [hellman] and I had a fight about the set. I've directed 30 shows and in each and every one somebody has a huge row with somebody else about something. But it's never been worth a story before.I've never seen anything like this, never." The Ingenue
Ann Talman is 23 and this is her first Equity role. She plays Regina's daughter, Alexandra Giddens. It is her first part, other than a showcase off Broadway, and she's opening on Broadway, in Elizabeth Taylor's first play with Maureen Stapleton as a co-star. It is, as she admits, "a miracle."
Her dressing room is carpetless. There are telegrams on the mirror from the president of the college she went to (Pennsylvania State University), the president of the college her father went to, and from her choir leader from high school.
She was on her way out the door of her fifth-floor walk-up in New York when she got a call last Dec. 21 to audition for the part of Alexandra. She was working at the time as a hostess at the Top of Sixes and as a "tempsec," and auditioning for everything she could.
She'd never read "The Little Foxes." "I raced over to the Drama Book Store to get a copy of the play and they were just about to close," she says, opening her brown eyes wide at the memory. "I pounded on the door and beggged them to let me in, and they did. When I got the part I went back and told them and they were really happy."
She got the call because she'd worked with Austin Pendleton at the Williamstown Theater Festival last summer, and she got the job because one of her college singing teachers works there. She studies with Pendleton at the HB Studio in New York.
She used to get up at 6 p.m., she says, to buy the newspapers and the theater papers to see what she could audition for. "I'd audition for anything. I'd go if it said the cast was all-black, or if the part called for a blond. I'd cut out articles in the papers and underline the names of people I thought I should know.
"I met [actress] Marian Seldes through a counterman at the Dover Deli.
Every night I used to go there for a cup of coffee, and he gave me her address. I wrote her and she wrote me back, and then she called and finally I met her. She really looks out for me. She's like my guardian angel. When I got this part, she cried, she was so happy. She writes and calls and tells people about me. One day I got a call from Luci Arnaz!"
Auditioning for Lillian Hellman was another milestone. Alexandra has the last line in the play: "Are you afraid, Mama?" Nervous, Talman said "Are you frightened, Mama?" instead. Talman recalls that "[casting director] Barry Moss said 'Ann! That's only one of the most famous lines in dramatic literature! It's afraid.' I said, 'Oh No! I'm so sorry! Oh my God!' But Miss Hellman just said, 'It means the same thing anyway.'"
During rehearsals she has carefully watched the older actors to learn from them. She watched Stapleton develop her "graph" of a scene, a mental blueprint of every movement and every moment, and how she continues to work on her part every day, reading the script over and over. She watched Anthony Zerbe say each line three times, "almost as though he was trying to get it into a groove." And she watched Elizabeth Taylor.
"She's the kind who holds back until the real thing comes. She's been incredible ever since we started performances. At first she was nervous -- we all were. She's so generous to us. I don't know how she handles all the publicity and the fans, but she just takes it in stride. I've never seen her lose her temper, really."
Talman comes from Pittsburgh where her father is a mining engineer. Her mother was killed in a car accident three years ago, a trauma that made Talman determined to get the career she wanted. She has an older brother with cerebral palsy, with whom she communicates through eye contact and a king of sibling ESP. She does not intend to marry or have a family for a long time. "My career is first. I just don't have time for anything else."
She wants a career as a "serious actress." She wants to do Chekhov, someday, when she's ready. Her models are Blythe Danner and Meryl Streep. "Not that I think I'm as good as they are." She has always been lucky. ("I've always been lucky," says Regina Giddens in the play. "I'll be lucky again.")
"You know it's funny," she says, a little shyly, looking down at her blue jeans and T-shirt. "People have always told me I resemble Elizabeth Taylor."