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The stage legend on her new comedy, young actors, and more
Estelle Parsons will not be mincing words, thank you very much.
For instance, when asked to describe Out of the Mouths of Babes, the new Israel Horovitz play she's starring in at the Cherry Lane, she says, "There's a lot of old farts in it."
Well… like Parsons, who will be 89 this fall, her co-stars – including Judith Ivey and Angelina Fiordellisi – certainly have a long history on the stage. That includes this stage in particular. Fiordellisi is Cherry Lane's Founding Artistic Director, and Parsons first appeared there way back in 1962, in a play called Mrs. Dally Has a Lover. "It's fixed up now, but it was totally different then: rickety," says the actress. "There was a strip club next door, so you'd get into the really serious parts of the play, and you'd hear this boom-bada-boom-bada-boom."
Parsons also has a past with Horovitz, including a 2014 turn in his play My Old Lady. "That play, like this one, is also set in Paris," she says. "He's in love with France because they're in love with him. They do all his plays there."
But that wasn't her first encounter with his work. "I did another play of his -- the worst flop ever written," she recalls. "The Reason We Eat, about a 400-pound lady on a fat farm. He likes to forget about it, but it was such a flop it's worth remembering. I was hot off my Academy Award [for 1967's Bonnie and Clyde], and I felt that play made me lose my whole fan base. 'Yay, let's go see Estelle in a play.' I could just see them all drifting away. Anyway, I've known Israel forever."
And Babes? "It's a kind of a farce," she says. The plot centers on four women of various ages who have all been involved with the same man, who died at the age of 100. They've gathered to mourn him in his Paris apartment, where they all lived at one time or another.
Does she prepare for light comedy differently than she would for a serious play?
"It's hard to say because I'm so experienced and don't have to prepare in that way," she says. However, she adds, "doing a drama is not as much fun as being in a room with people who are howling with laughter. Preparing a play like this is a real slog without an audience to respond to things that you're doing. So for a long period we were just waiting and waiting and waiting for an audience."
The crowds finally arrived when performances began on June 7, and due to popular demand, the show has been extended two weeks to July 31. Parsons welcomes the added performances: "It's very much fun to do this, and you're not worn out by it at all. I feel like I could do six shows a day because it's just fun to do."
Does she grapple with the inner emotional life of her character, even in a comedy? "I don't grapple," she says. "I just learn the lines and say them. I know younger people say, 'Yes, but with this happening here and with this happening there,' and I just sit there and wait 'til they finish. I don't care what anyone writes anymore. If they wrote it, I'll make it work. That's my attitude."
When asked about the differences between young performers today and those who were at the Cherry Lane in the 60s, she says flatly, "Actors were better then. This was before people went to school to learn how to act. Everyone who wanted to act was acting all the time. Now there are too many actors and nobody gets to act all the time. And they've been through schools, as if it's some big academic, intellectual, bloody, la-de-da, whoop-de-do."
Which brings us back to why she doesn't "grapple" with her roles. "The thing is you've got an audience, and so I'm there to entertain them," she says. "And that's not what actors are about anymore. Actors are up there to show that they went to school and they are now 'actors.'"
As she sees it, that's an especially dangerous attitude for comedy. "There's a very kind of strange thing that's happened [with young actors]," she says. "They don't know the simplest things that I know from being on the stage all my life. Everything is vague now. It doesn't hang together. It's very unlike [seasoned director] Jerry Zaks, where one goes to two, which goes to three. He's such a genius at that, but that's not the way people do things anymore. But that's the way comedy has to work. Everyone has to be on one wavelength. So that's what's missing. That sense of comic timing."
TDF members: At press time, discount tickets were available for Out of the Mouths of Babes. Go here to browse our current offers.