Friday, May 18, 1990

Unbitten peach

Harris' burgs New York and London both adore this adopted North Carolina actress
Bill Morrison
26 January 1992
The News & Observer Raleigh, NC
(Copyright 1992)

NEW YORK -- Rosemary Harris peeked around the stage door of the Richard Rodgers Theater, where she's playing the tyrannical Grandma Kurnitz in Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers."

With her crippled foot and crippled heart, her lethal cane and deadly stare, this iron-fisted woman is just about the meanest gal in town. And easily one of the funniest.

The Widow Kurnitz would never be late, nor would Harris if she could help it.

But you see, she said, taking her guest by the hand as she hurried across the darkened stage to her dressing room, there was all this traffic. And her limo just seemed to sit there. Silly having a limo, she says, when you live just two blocks away, a short walk through a parking deck and the lobby of the art deco Edison Hotel (the first place she stayed when she came to New York in the '50s).

It's part of the star treatment for the woman Laurence Olivier picked to open England's National Theater.

But Rosemary Harris, an Emmy and Tony winner, is the least likely star. She's sweet and witty and terribly, terribly funny. She wears a cloth coat as if it were Blackglama. You want an autograph, she signs. You want to see the dressing room that belonged to Ginger Rogers back in the '30s, she shows.

You want to see grandma's foundation garments, the armor that she wears, she shrieks. "Oh, nononono. I'm always telling Laura {the dresser} 'Hide them. Hide them.' They look so awful hanging up there."

But it's fascinating to think of the transformation that comes when she dons these clothes, when she steps into the heavy orthopedic shoes and moves with her cane into the fray. When she steps on stage, there's a gasp before the traditional star applause. No one quite believes this grim old dear is really the lovely Rosemary Harris.

But that's the genius of a Rosemary Harris, the wife of North Carolina writer John Ehle and mother of the latest toast of London's West End, Jennifer Ehle. An evening spent with Grandma is like a date with Lady Macbeth or the Spider Woman. Nervous laughter and bitter tea.

There's a line in the play, "I never told you that she was a lot of laughs."

"No, she's not," Harris says with a laugh.

She was acting all over her native England when "Lost in Yonkers" had its world premiere at the Roger Stevens Center in Winston-Salem, which she now calls home. A year and many awards later, the play is still going strong with Harris in the role created by Tony winner Irene Worth.

Harris, 61, sits at a makeup table in her dressing room, the light playing on her finely chiseled face, the huge cheekbones and the lovely eyes, the blonde hair touched with gray and tied in the back with a black scarf.

She considers her portrayal of the tyrannical grandmother "a work in progress -- I think I know her, but it's a question of fleshing her out completely, of giving her as much dimension as I can. I feel I have a blueprint for her, but it's a question of putting in the shading.

"She's pretty consistent. I've often played characters that appear totally inconsistent and therefore you can't quite put all the ducks in a row or thread all the beads on the string. But with Grandma, there are no contradictions, because she is in this carapace. She's grown this shell around her and so any complexities are deeply hidden. She's this arrogant, impatient, always-in-the-right woman who has survived."

The character is nothing like the actress.

"I think that's one of the things that breaks my heart," Harris says. "This woman doesn't know the feelings that I have. She may have a glimmer of what it is she's missed, but she doesn't really know."

The dressing room at the Richard Rogers (originally the 46th Street Theater) is a haven for the star. Cards and photographs fill all the available shelf space. There are flower arrangements from friends and co-stars like Jane Kaczmarek, who's brilliant as Grandma Kurtz's daughter, Bella.

"My sister sent me this photograph the other day," Harris says, selecting a snapshot taken years ago in England. "I wanted to see what my grandmother looked like. My grandmother was Romanian, and in my memory she wasn't a tyrant but she was a real tough cookie. I look at her now, and she looks really rather sweet. I thought at the time that she was as old as God."

There are other photographs of husband John, who's writing a biography of Rogers Stevens, the impresario who once owned the Empire State Building and for whom the Winston-Salem theater is named.

And snapshots of her darling daughter, Jennifer, who left drama school in London to star in British television's "Camomile Lawn" (Harris plays her daughter as an older woman in the five-part mini-series). Before Ehle could return to school, she was cast by Sir Peter Hall in Moliere's "Tartuffe" (she plays Orgon's wife in this London hit).

Harris laughs with joy.

"John is tinkled pink. He said, 'I think somebody should interview me. How many husbands and fathers have a wife on Broadway and a daughter in the West End?'

"People used to say to me, 'How did you know Jennifer was going to be an actress?' I suppose, looking back, the signs were all there."

She reaches for a photograph of her daughter taken the night years ago when the family stayed at the Plaza Hotel. Harris suggested that Jennifer play Eloise, the little girl whose portrait hangs in the lobby of that august establishment. And before the evening was done, the child, only 5 or 6, had created a look that was Eloise to a tee. Arms akimbo, she affected the stance, the lopsided smile."

Now the inevitable has happened. Jennifer Ehle has been discovered by Sir Peter Hall, who directed her mother on Broadway in "Old Times."

But the casting was no favor to a friend. Like her mom, Ehle has the groceries (the critic for the Sunday Times of London said she was "like a peach that has never been bitten").

That strikes Harris as a very funny line, something for the scrapbooks. Listening to her laugh, one is reminded how lovely the English voice is. And in the hands of a virtuoso like Rosemary Harris, it becomes a dangerously seductive weapon. No heart is safe.

Of course she had to create another voice for "Lost in Yonkers." Manny Azenberg, the producer, said the role was hers if she could come up with a German accent, and luckily she had one tucked away, she said, in a little drawer in the back of her head.

One might expect as much from an actress who made her Broadway debut 40 years ago in "Climate of England." The roles have never stopped, with Harris crisscrossing the Atlantic and winning hearts and awards: a Tony for "The Lion in Winter," the Obie for "The New York Idea," the Golden Globe for "Holocaust," the Emmy for "Masterpiece Theater: Notorious Woman."

Her film appearances include "A Flea in Her Ear" and "The Boys From Brazil." The latter put her on screen with Sir Laurence, who cast her as Ophelia in "Hamlet" when he launched the National Theater of Great Britain in 1964.

And the future is filled with choices. There's talk that she might do the "Yonkers" in London. But then she might do any number of plays there, including "Painting Churches" (which she did last year in Southampton) and a revival of Joseph Kesselring's "Arsenic and Old Lace."

Harris adores "Arsenic," a hit at last summer's Chichester Festival.

"It was such fun to do," she said. "Of course, it's a brilliant play, beautifully constructed. You just have to set your little boat on the water and off it bobs.

"I played Miss Martha, and I adored doing it because a lovely actress named Elizabeth Spriggs played Abby. Now, she has rather larger dimensions than I, and one reviewer described her as being a lovely, comfortable sofa. And then they described me as a hat stand because I insisted on wearing a hat all the time."

Classically trained, Harris adores contemporary comedy. As a young actress in London, she won favor in Neil Simon's "Plaza Suite," playing three different women. "I don't know when I've enjoyed anything more," she says. "It was a wonderful tour de force," the evening speeding by on a wave of hysteria.

"I was so near to breaking up the whole time. I don't think you can play comedy unless you think what you're doing is funny. I know there are some actors {who wouldn't agree}. I was reading about somebody who was a wonderful comedian, but she kept saying, 'What are they laughing at? I don't understand why they are laughing.' She had no sense of humor at all, and yet she was a brilliant comedian."

She always felt that Neil Simon was funny, but that there was more substance than critics realized early on. She cites the opening act in "Plaza Suite" -- "a very bittersweet, poignant story of a marriage with some marvelously profound moments."

Now, all these years later, she's back on stage with Neil Simon. The man hasn't lost his touch. "It's beautifully written and the characters are wonderful," she says.

"It's so economically written, that first part of her scene. She says so little, it speaks volumes. Then once she decides to let loose, she goes into full spate. It offers an actress everything. Everything. The moment I read it I thought, 'This was a gift.'"

Then Manny Azenberg asked her to do it. "We worked together almost 30 years ago. He produced 'The Lion in Winter.' I was laughing. I was saying to Manny, 'Well, we better work together more than every 30 years because we won't have many more opportunities."

Her contract runs through the end of March. Maybe she'll stay longer if they ask.

"It's a dream come true," she said. "I was sort of adding it up and saying, 'Really, I have the best of all possible worlds.' I've come into a hit show in the most wonderful role, and with a cast already there with their arms open to receive me."

And, she adds, no critics.

"Because at the back of one's mind there's always, 'Oh, gosh, I hope I can get away with it.' But I haven't had to worry about that this time. It's like having a child without labor, because it's all of the joy and none of the pain."

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