Culture Vulture: PLAY YOURSELF benefit reading

October 9, 2019

Fresh on the heels of its latest Broadway transfer (Jeremy O Harris’s edgy Slave Play), New York Theatre Workshop launched its 40th anniversary season Monday night October 7 with a benefit reading of Harry Kondoleon’s Play Yourself. In a program note and at the reception afterwards, the company’s quiet powerhouse of an artistic director, Jim Nicola, acknowledged that “Harry Kondoleon has been at the heart of New York Theatre Workshop longer than I have.” Indeed, Kondoleon’s 1983 Christmas on Mars was NYTW’s first production (in partnership with Playwrights Horizons), and Nicola produced the New York premiere of Play Yourself in 2002 in a beautiful staging by Craig Lucas starring the late great Marian Seldes and the phenomenal Elizabeth Marvel.

For this reading, Lee Sunday Evans (who directed one of last season’s most remarkable shows, Clare Barron’s Dance Nation) assembled a fascinating cast. Off-Broadway veteran Leslie Ayvazian played the role of Jean, an aged former Hollywood B-movie starlet who’s now long retired, half-blind, living in happy obscurity with Yvonne, her former East Village club-kid daughter, now a depressed stay-at-home. Yvonne was played by Rachel Brosnahan, who last appeared at NYTW as Desdemona opposite David Oyewolo’s Othello and Daniel Craig’s Iago, but of course is better known as the star of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. They were joined by the adorable comic character actor and former rocker Annie Golden playing Selma, an ardent fan who tracks Jean down, bringing along with her Brother Harmon, the charismatic founder of a “home for the hopeless,” played by Arian Moayed, who appeared on Broadway in The Humans and is currently on the TV show Succession. Having only had three hours’ rehearsal, the actors did an amazing job of conjuring the play to life.

Play Yourself has all the ingredients that make Harry Kondoleon’s plays distinctive — the vibrant voice, the laugh-out-loud one-liners, the off-handed poetic diction (death is referred to as “oblivion’s lily pad”), the magical transformations, the delicate evolution from familiar living-room comedy to something deeper, stranger, philosophical. At the benefit reading it sounded as fresh and funny as it was when it was written in 1986, and possibly even more pertinent now in the #MeToo/Time’sUp era with its knowing depiction of Hollywood’s callous treatment of women. I attended the reading with the Harry Kondoleon posse — his family (represented by his nephew Lucas Wittmann and his wife Victoire), his William Morris agent Jonathan Lomma, and his best friend and literary executor Stephen Soba.

Afterwards Stephen and I had a fun, spirited conversation with Ayvazian, who knocked us out playing Jean. It turns out Ayvazian knew Harry and a lot of his work. “He wrote great parts for women,” she declared. “He gave them teeth! And cunts!”

At the reception around the corner at Nai Tapas, I chatted up the delightful Ari Moayed, who reminded me that he’d been in the reading of Harry’s Zero Positive at the Public Theater a few years ago. And I had an extended passionate, intimate conversation with Annie Golden about the intense years of the AIDS crisis in NYC and the loved ones we lost to the plague (including her brother and our Harry). Big gratitude to Jim Nicola, Linda Chapman, and all the folks at New York Theatre Workshop for making this one of those fun, crazy nights that make life in New York so special.

%d bloggers like this: