Uta in Mrs. Klein (Part 2)

Lortel’s agreement with us called for co-producer billing next to David on a line with no other names. But for our opening Times ad, we had elected to use movie-style “run-on” billing, which put several people’s names on every line. When Lucille received the advance ad proof, she called Ben Sprecher to complain. Ben asked David to call her, and David explained to her that we were using movie billing. “If I wanted movie billing, dear,” she said, “I would do movies.”

Amy Wright continued in her role as Paula the assistant, and Laila Robins joined us as Melitta, the daughter—both remarkableactors who could hold stage with Uta. As the first read-through was about to start, the house manager of the Lortel ran anxiously down the aisle and stopped the rehearsal. “Excuse me,” he said to Uta Hagen, “there is no smoking in the theater.” “No smoking,” she demurred, “no actress.” He scurried away without even mentioning her dog.

I adored Uta. She had a wonderful sense of humor, we both smoked, and it was the natural thing for me to devote myself to her. Ben Brantley, the Times critic, had written an advance squib to the effect that a Hagen appearance on a New York stage was the equivalent of Halley’s Comet, and I was constantly giving her the glowing reports from the box office. “I’m used to having managers tell me how well Billie Burke did last week,” she said. “This is wonderful.”

A half hour before the first preview of Mrs. Klein, Uta asked the stage manager to get Billy Carden. “My peephole,” she said. “There’s no peephole. I need my peephole.” The set designer made a hole in the upstage velour and put a flap over it. Every night, five minutes before curtain, Uta peeked through it to have a look at her audience. “I need to sense who they are,” she said, and,indeed, her acting technique was projected through a stage presence that was inclusive of the audience and made them feel that she belonged to them.

Ben Brantley in the Times placed Hagen’s performance among legends. “Each generation of theatergoers tends to feel it has just missed out on the really great performances: by Duse, say, or Laurette Taylor, or John Barrymore. For those of us now hitting middle age, that wistfulness embraces Julie Harris’s Sally Bowles, Kim Stanley’s Cherie in Bus Stop, and Ms. Hagen’s Martha. Well, it seems we haven’t arrived too late at the party after all. Ms. Hagen is now in a role she says she believes she was meant to play, and there’s no evidence of diminished fierceness or technique in her performance. Admirers of serious acting who choose to miss it are merely foolish.”

The day after opening, the box office took in $44,000.  With a sheaf of solid reviews now in hand, it was time to approach Lucille Lortel about an ongoing problem with her theater. Christopher Street had changed. It was now a noisy honky-tonk. During previews, we had stationed someone in front of the theater to try to control the noise level. People screaming, transistor radios, and firecrackers could all be heard from inside the theater.

“Lucille,” I began, “Christopher Street has changed. It’s become very noisy, and the noise carries right into the house. I was wondering how you would feel about building up the rear half-wall to the ceiling. Or, hanging some thick velour above it.”

There was a long silence, after which Lucille rejoined, “Tell Uta to speak up, dear.”

At a production photo shoot, someone suggested a picture of Uta and me. “Oh, yes,” Uta said. “The Smokers.” As the photo was being taken, she told me a story Bea Lillie had told her about a smoking chorine that is unprintable. I will tell it privately upon request.

Part 1

  •    From STAGES – A Theater Memoir by Albert Poland

Albert Poland

Born in Germany, Uta Hagen moved to Madison, Wisconsin, at the age of six. With the exception of several interruptions for study in Europe, Ms. Hagen received most of her schooling in Madison, her home until age sixteen. After training briefly at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, she made her professional debut in 1937 in Dennis, Massachusetts, as “Ophelia” in Eva Le Gallienne’s production of Hamlet.

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