For the first time in 11 years, Elaine Stritch was on an American stage again -- singing "The Ladies Who Lunch," that snarling tribute to all the wealthy and bored women of the world that invariably brought the 1970 musical "Company" to a dead stop every night.
True, it was only a rehearsal for the PBS television special, "Broadway Pays Tribute to Washington," which was taped Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House. But as soon as Stritch attacked the opening measures of the song, biting into lyrics that flail the empty lives of the noontime martini drinkers better than any whip, her voice booming out over the empty hall like a foghorn at a late-night party, it was clear. Elaine Stritch was back home.
In the 1950s and '60s, Stritch was one of Broadway's most distinctive personalities -- as much for her work in musicals ("Goldilocks," "Sail Away," "Pal Joey") and plays ("Bus Stop," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"), as for her brittle repartee offstage. By the time Hal Prince tapped her for "Company," however, she had begun to sense that the fast lane had its shortcomings.
"The whole New York life -- another show on Broadway -- it was like a movie I'd already seen. A movie I liked. But I'd seen it before," Stritch barked, once she'd settled into an armchair in the Concert Hall green room. "One day, during a rehearsal break, Chita Rivera picked me up in a cab for lunch. I thought that was strange since there are so many retaurants in the area. Then Chita turned to the driver and said, 'Across the street and step on it.' I think that's when I started to think about getting out of New York and taking life a little slower."
The backstage area at the Concert Hall was an autograph hunter's notion of Valhalla. Milling about were Debbie Reynolds, John Raitt, Robert Morse, Bea Arthur, Melba Moore, Ken Page, Larry Kert, Pearl Bailey and Andrea McArdle, all of whom would also be contributing their particular Broadway show-stoppers to the special, which will be aired on 270 PBS stations March 13 as part of PBS' annual fund drive. Stritch, her hair in curlers and her body shrouded in a plain blue shift that came to her knees, looked slightly out of place. Now in her mid-fifties, she looked, in fact, as if she hadn't yet put the morning coffee on to perk. Puffing on a cigarette, she flicked the ashes into an empty Coke can at her feet.
"I used to think being extreme was part of talent," Stritch continued, scarcely taking notice of the nearby TV monitor, which relayed images from the stage of Barry Bostwick wailing "Alone at a Drive-In Movie" from "Grease." "I came on awfully strong for a long time. I guess I've fooled a lot of people with that facade of knowing everything and everyone. For 20 years, I never had breakfast. Hit the streets every morning. Wasn't against having a shot or two during the day. Really, I was all the ladies who lunch rolled into one."
So when "Company" went to London, Stritch went with it "for a respite." She stayed on for two more shows in the West End, two series on ITV, and a marriage. The plays were Tennesee Williams' "Small Craft Warnings," which the British press welcomed as enthusiastically as their American counterparts had panned it earlier, and Neil Simon's not-so-successful 1970 comedy, "The Gingerbread Lady." "Neil rewrote some of it. You know it's about a suicidal singer who's an alcoholic and a nymphomaniac. I telephoned Neil and said, 'Look, don't you think alcoholic is enough?' "
The TV shows were "Two's Company," in which she played an unsuccessful American writer who gets a butler (Donald Sinden) because everyone else in London seems to have one; and "Nobody's Perfect," which consisted of scripts from "Maude" reworked for English audiences, with Stritch in the Bea Arthur role. "For one thing, Maude's been married and divorced -- what? -- five times. Being a Catholic, I thought once was enough for anyone," Stritch explained. (At one point there was a cardinal in the Stritches' extended family and his influence, apparently, continues to be felt.)
Her husband is Irish actor John Bay, who, she said, resembles former president John Kennedy and does an uncanny imitation of Groucho Marx, which he has turned into a one-man show. They married in 1973 and took up residence in the Savoy Hotel.
"London helped Elaine" is how Stritch sums up the 11-year exile. "It helped me straighten out a lot of values. I don't like the word star -- it's a four-letter word -- and I don't know where they got it. All that it means is that you sign autographs in railroad stations. In England, you're not a star; you're an actor. Acting is just work. You can play a lead, and then take a secondary role, simply because it interests you, and no one thinks you've hit the skids.
"If you're very American and very straightforward, they love you over there. Oh, I've got talent. That's not boasting. It's a fact. I suppose if I had pursued being the hard-boiled, fast-quipping comedienne, I'd be a superstar today. But I've always preferred to go back and forth from musicals to plays. They like that in London. They turn cartwheels. But here in America, they yawn and say, 'Oh, yeah.' "
Still, 11 years abroad seemed like enough. "I got homesick when I heard they'd elected an actor to the White House. I didn't want to miss any of the entrances or exits. Or the laughs. I felt I should check out the president. See how well he was following that advice Noel Coward always gave to actors: Say the lines and don't bump into the furniture."
She laughed the patented Stritch laugh that sounds like gravel rattling in a tin cup, then suddenly found herself pulling up her feet so Imogene Coca could pass. Coca, not so much dressed as enveloped in silver fabric, headed toward the stage to sing "Repent" from "On the Twentieth Century." Shortly after, Alexis Smith glided by, radiating imperturbable elegance.
Stritch and her husband stepped off the Concorde only two months ago, but their first weekend back they bought a house in Nyack, N.Y. The woman who, by her own admission, has been "a house guest most of my life," is now consumed by interior decoration. Does that mean brassy Elaine Stritch, the night owl once described as "a Grosse Pointe Texas Guinan having a helluva time," is actually settling in? Settling down?
"There's a lot of squareness inside this person," she said, not particularly apologetically. "There's a lot of Birmingham, Mich., where I come from. I guess I've always been torn between having a personal life and having a career. God, that sounds corny! That sounds awful. Don't write it down . . . You know what my big temptation in Washington is? Whether or not to steal the terry cloth robe from the Watergate Hotel. I've already stolen the soap for the bathrooms. Well, I've never had a house before and it's exciting. I haven't looked at a Halston dress in months. That's a good sign for me. All the money is going for chairs and ashtrays."
In the past, Stritch said of her profession, "I've had a few very happy experiences in the theater and a few monumentally sad ones. But I survived. I mean, I'm sitting up and taking nourishment." The lyrics to "The Ladies to Lunch" calls her breed "the dinosaurs surviving the crunch."
No longer. "I'm a well-adjusted lady who gets a kick out of being in the theater," she rasped. "I smoke a few cigarettes, drink a few glasses of wine, play a bit and work a little. I have fallen in love."
Stritch paused dramatically, before adding, "With moderation."