"The food on the train is very good. The celery is so crisp." -- From "The Little Foxes"
AND INDEED the celery was crisp last Sunday on Amtrak's Metroliner, as the revival of Lillian Hellman's play also revived the grand old theater tradition of the cast's taking the train out-of-town tryouts to open in New York. Maureen Stapleton, train buff and co-star of the play with Elizabeth Taylor, couldn't remember another play going to New York by train in over 20 years.
And Stapleton should know. She always takes the train, never flies, and she was the catalyst for the trip, which became a 4 1/2-hour rolling cast party with food the likes of which hasn't been seen on a train in Amtrak's recent history.
The whole thing started as a joke, out of a line in the play suggesting they all take the train to Baltimore in the faraway North to pick up the ailing Horace (Tom Aldredge). Only this time it was, "Let's all take the train to New York with Maureen." The next scene was at Dominique's restaurant, which Elizabeth Taylor frequents, where the joke turned into a monumental production, live.
It had all the elements of successful theater:
A great star: Elizabeth Taylor, playing the role of the queen eager to conquer New York, having already conquered bulges at a diet spa in Ft. Lauderdale and Kentucky Center audiences in Washington.
A brilliant supporting cast: Maureen Stapleton playing a red-hot mama in corduroy tent dress and canvas flats, no makeup but plenty of pizazz. Plus eight other actors, kids and cats and straw hats, secretaries and producers and assorted bit parts to number 32.
Pathos: Tears and hugs for the Kennedy Center "kids" and the stage doorman who came to see them off.
Tension: Maureen Stapleton worried for an hour before departure, and half-an-hour after, about losing her luggage. Dominique's staff worried over sloshing drinks on a swaying train. Everyone worried over an early but brief breakdown of air conditioning and ovens.
Humor: Sen. John Warner, escorting his wife to the train and answering about his role in the production, "I got her here on time; beyond that . . . [shrug]" Well, you had to be there . . . After he leaves Taylor off, Warner reports that all he got for his part was a stalk of celery.
Lavish set: An entire railroad car filled with smoked salmon and filet mignon, three cases of champagne and wines of every color, lobster and raspberries, celebrities and black-tie waiters. A second car half-filled with luggage.
A frazzled company manager: Michael Lonergan playing the heavy, shoving the cast into place for last-minute photographers, shouting, "Around the luggage cart! Around the luggage cart!" And slipping a wad of bills to the train staff, who then keep a close eye throughout the trip on the reporter and photographer in the next car.
And a happy ending, but we'll get to that later.
Overture: A sunny Sunday, springtime in Washington ablaze with pink azaleas and crimson tulips. Truck 20 platform at Union Station lilting with accordian music, actors in "Little Foxes" T-shirts standing around with their props -- bloody marys (with crisp celery). The star arrives in rosebud pink sweater and slim pants and on her finger a diamond as big as the Watergate; the cast pours off the train to greet her with hugs. Instamatics flash. The restaurateur presents Taylor with a souvenir, a stuffed fox he hunted in the Virginia forests. Big smile and a mutted, "Don't get it near me," followed by, "Kindly get rid of that." Stapleton belts out a few notes and Taylor dances a brief jig; both pose together on the luggage rack, Taylor smiling bravely as a coat hanger nudges her face.
Scene: Departure. The players take their places for Act 1, settling into seats of the railroad car; a sign in the window warns that it is a private party. Children wander back from other cars looking for the snack bar, are rerouted to the front. The rest of the train is oblivious: people reading newspapers, playing cards, eating potato chips. But undercurrents of the feast in the rear car spread forward; the snack bar sells what must be a record number of cheeseburgers.
Scene: Struggle With Nature. Champagne flows -- and sloshes. The first leg of the trip, to Baltimore, is the rockiest on the Metroliner route. Plates of seafood slide along trays. Waiters walk with their legs spread for balance. Blind accordionist Norbert Slama learns to go with the flow. "This is the fun part," says a brave waitress. A waiter reassures her, "We'll make it," Plates of seafood slide off trays.
Scene: A Little Old Diversion. A passenger who describes herself to Dominique as, "I'm a little old lady 75 years old," begs to see Taylor. They let her in for a viewing.She waves. Taylor waves. She is happy. For a few moments. She returns for another look, and then another. She begs, "I wouldn't harm her; I just want to kiss her hand."
"She's a queen," explains Dominique. "I'm a queen, too," counters the Little Old Lady. Dominique promises to introduce the two queens at the end of the ride. We haven't seen the end of this Little Old Lady.
Scene: Flashback. Producer Zev Bufman met Taylor unexpectedly at Wolf Trap last summer and found her eager to do a play, her first play. Now she has committed herself to the stage for the next few years, says Bufman, and is considering trading productions of "The Little Foxes" with a Russian theater group. She also has thrown herself into the cast's social life. Most of them stayed at the Intrigue hotel in Washington and went there for dinner often after the show; Taylor went along, usually eating mussels and clams to keep on her diet. She invited the cast to her farm in Virginia and to her Georgetown home, got them a private tour of the White House, always made sure every one of the crew, stagehands as well as cast, was invited to the parties. "This company is never apart," says Bufman, who has never seen such a closely knit company outside of musicals. He attributes the closeness to Taylor and Stapleton.
Scene: Life of the Party. Stapleton wants to jitterbug with Bufman, who is visiting the passenger car; he agrees. An idea: Send a message back to Stapleton that the photographer in the passenger car is a hotshot dancer. It works. She comes out in her stocking feet, accordionist following, for an introductory jitterbug. The setting is Wilmington. The train is stopped. A few wedged-in whirls down the aisle, and Stapleton grabs the photographer's hand to lead him toward the exit. "I don't want to lose you. Would you like to go outside?" The train jerks to a start, and instead Stapleton heads with photographer in hand toward the party car for a real dance. The party goes on, with waiters weaving between tango and jitterbug to pour champagne and clear the plates of filet mignon with green peppercorn sauce, potatoes baked with cheese and creamed spinach. Cold asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, with tarragon gribiche sauce follows. Then crepes with raspberry sauce, chocolate truffles, liqueurs. 36 bottles of champagne are reaching their end.
Scene: Rashomon in the Kitchen. Every witness has a different tale to tell. Bufman says Taylor is off her diet, but just ate two bites of her filet and wrapped up the rest for the new pet -- a German shepherd -- he was waiting for her in New York. A waitress says Taylor ate everything, that it was the secretary's leftovers that were wrapped for the dog. A waiter takes a middle ground, that Taylor ate most of her dinner. They may not agree, but they all have an opinion on Taylor's meal.
Scene: The Wrap-up. New York is entering right of stage. One actor wraps up the chocolate truffles, another an ashtray. Doggie bags all around. Someone suggests they stay on the train and, when they run out of money, just get out and give a few performances, then continue on. A waiter suggests that Dominique's staff make a career of giving parties back and forth from New York. It has been a long and lavish trip. Stapleton sums up the bash with, "I never, never, never want to have a good time like this again."
Scene: Bright Lights of Broadway. The New York press is there, shoving and shouting and demanding Taylor, peering into train windows until the lights go out and everyone freezes for a short intermission until the engineer is found. Taylor steps off the train, surrounded by staff and bodyguard, marching quickly toward the escalator. A smile fixed on her face, she answers every question with, "Hello." The crowd grows to hundreds, up the escalator and racing up the stairs beside the escalator. The shoving threatens the balance of photographers and bystanders. Into the limousine. Photographers pressing to the limousine windows. A traffic jam of onlookers hemming in Taylor's car. Photographers cursing their lack of a good shot. At the edge of the crowds stands the Little Old Lady, telling the world, "I did it! I kissed her." She turns to a reporter, "Meet my daughter."
The daughter is new to the scene. "Mother, where is the man with your suitcase?"
The play is over, and the Little Old Lady returns to real life, "Oh, my God!" All she has is her memories of Elizabeth Taylor and of her suitcase. L'ASSIETTE DE POISSONS FROIDS (1 serving) Snow peas, steamed 2 jumbo shrimp, cooked 1 slice smoked salmon 2 ounces lump crabmeat 3 ounces lobster, cut in chunks 1/2 lemon, endives, chopped onions, capers, chopped eggs, chopped parsley, black and rye breads for garniture Fresh dill curry sauce (recipe below) Aioli with fresh chives (recipe below)
To smoke salmon at home, rub 2 pounds filleted belly meat of red Alaskan salmon with 1/2 cup uniodized salt and refrigerate 4 hours. Rinse under cold water. Refrigerate on racks for 24 hours. Place fish in smoker and smoke at 90 degrees for 5 to 6 hours. Allow fish to return to room temperature, then wrap in aluminum foil and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Arrange snow peas, shrimp, salmon, crabmeat and lobster on platter. Garnish with lemon, endives, onions, capers, chopped eggs, chopped parsley, and black and rye breads. Put a couple of tablespoons of dill curry sauce, aioli and fresh chives on each plate. FRESH DILL CURRY SAUCE (Makes 1 3/4 cups) 1 cup sour cream 1/2 cup mayonnaise 3 tablespoons lemon juice 2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill 1 tablespoon curry powder 2 teaspoons dijon mustard 1/2 teaspoon paprika Salt and pepper to taste
Blend all ingredients. Keep chilled until served. SAUCE AIOLI WITH FRESH CHIVES (Makes 1 cup) 6 garlic cloves 3 egg yolks 1 1/2 tablespoons dijon mustard 1 tablespoon lemon juice Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 cup olive oil 2 tablespoons finely chopped chives Pinch saffron
Pound garlic in a mortar or electric blender to a smooth paste. Put aside. Beat yolks until thick and sticky. Blend with mustard, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Beat mixture with a whisk or electric mixer. Gradually add olive oil, beating constantly to blend all ingredients, as you would make a mayonnaise. Adjust seasoning. Stir in garlic, chives and saffron. SAUCE GRIBICHE TARRAGON (Makes 3 cups)
This sauce is the perfect complement for cold seafood, poached fish or cold vegetables. Dominique served it with bundles of cooked fresh asparagus, chilled and wrapped in prosciutto. 4 hard-cooked eggs 1 1/2 teaspoons dijon mustard Salt and pepper to taste 2 cups olive oil 3/4 cup red wine vinegar 1/2 cup minced sour pickles 2 tablespoons finely chopped tarragon
Separate yolks from whites. Mash yolks in a round bowl. Add mustard, salt and pepper, olive oil, wine vinegar, sour pickles and tarragon. Blend well. Dice egg white finely, add to the sauce and chill. BROILED FILET OF BEEF WITH PEPPERCORN SAUCE Brown Sauce: 5 pounds meaty veal bones, chopped into 4- or 5-inch pieces 5 pounds beef bones, chopped into 4- or 5-inch pieces 4 carrots, coarsely chopped 2 large onions, chopped 2 stalks celery, chopped 10 peppercorns, crushed 2 cups water 8 quarts water 2 cloves garlic, unpeeled and split 1 bouquet garni (1 bay leaf, 2 sprigs fresh parsley, 1 sprig fresh thyme tied in cheesecloth) 3 cups chopped fresh tomatoes Peppercorn Sauce: 1/3 cup dry white wine 1 1/2 tablespoons cognac 2 tablespoons green peppercorns, water packed, drained of all juices 2 cups brown sauce (recipe included) 1 cup whipping cream Salt and pepper to taste Meat: 8-ounces prime filet, centercut, for each serving Oil
Ask butcher to cut bones for brown sauce. To make brown sauce, preheat over to 425 degrees. Spread bones in a large roasting pan and roast 2 hour, stirring and turning bones every 30 minutes. Add carrots, onions, celery and peppercorns. Roast an additional 10 minutes. Transfer the entire contents of the roasting pan into a 10-quart kettle. Add 2 cups water to the roasting pan and dissolve all crusty material remaining in the pan. Add this to the kettle. Add 8 quarts of water and garlic cloves, bouquet garni and tomatoes. Bring to a simmer. Remove any scum that rises to the top during the first 2 hours. Cover pot and simmer an additional 8 hours. Do not boil. Cool stock and skim the solidified fat from the surface. Strain stock through a sieve and then through a cheesecloth.
Note: This sauce will keep for weeks in the refrigerator and forever in the freezer. Divide into plastic containers, freeze and use as needed. Makes 6 cups.
To make green peppercorn sauce blend wine and cognac in a saucepan. Simmer gently until reduced to 3 tablespoons. Add 2 cups brown sauce. Simmer for 12 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in cream. Return to heat and simmer for 10 minutes or more, stirring constantly, until sauce coats the spoon. Adjust seasoning. Makes 2 cups.
To broil filet, brush top and bottom of filet with oil. Broil the meat under a hot flame or in an electric or gas broiler unit. Broil 4 minutes on each side (for medium rare).
Place beef on a warmed platter, pour hot green peppercorn sauce on top of beef. POMMES DE TERRE DAUPHINOISE (POTATOES AU GRATIN) (4 to 5 servings) 2 pounds red-skinned potatoes 1 clove garlic 2 tablespoons butter 2 cups milk Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 6 ounces grated gruyere 6 tablespoons light cream
Peel and slice the potatoes; set aside. Cut garlic into halves and rub them over the bottom and sides of a shallow ovenproof dish; then butter the dish.
Place milk, potatoes and salt in a large saucepan and bring to a quick boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 3 minutes. Drain potatoes, reserving milk. Place potatoes in the dish, seasoning each layer with salt and pepper, and adding a little cheese and cream each time. When all the potatoes are arranged in the dish, pour 3/4 cup of the reserved milk over the potatoes, plus all remaining cream and cheese.
Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until potatoes are tender and crusty. SPINACH IN CREAM (4 servings) 2 pounds fresh spinach Salt and freshly ground pepper Pinch nutmeg 3 tablespoons heavy cream 1 egg yolk Butter 2 tablespoons chopped parsley 2 tablespoons dry bread crumbs
Boil water in a large stockpot. Add spinach and salt and return to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Drain spinach, cool. Squeeze out excess water and drain again for 15 minutes or so.
Place spinach in a blender or food processor and process only until chopped. Add pepper, nutmeg and cream and blend well. Stir in egg yolk. Place spinach in a buttered, shallow heatproof casserole. Dust with parsley and bread crumbs. Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for approximately 10 minutes.