rambling reporter

In Westport tome, the playhouse is the thing

Now that summer is officially here, many of the venerable summer theaters that still do exist — few though they might be these days — are opening their doors again, a perfect time not only to do some playgoing but also to check out a magnificent book called "An American Theatre: The Story of the Westport Country Playhouse" by Richard Somerset-Ward, with a foreword by Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman. This particular playhouse, now a year-round theater in Westport, Conn., started in the Depression days of 1931 as a summer-only stock house with one-week runs per show, founded by the Theatre Guild's Lawrence Langner and his wife, Armina. Recently, under the watchful eye of the Newmans, the theater been restored to a state-of-the-art condition and hopefully will thrive for at least another 77 years. The tome, in coffee-table-book proportions and filled with photographs, delves into the theater's lofty history and the years it attracted important playwrights and had a distinguished repertory, later becoming a tryout station for many plays aiming for Broadway. The house also attracted major stars and famous directors; one of the great assets of the book is its play-by-play listing of all the legiters done there from 1931-2004. Gene Kelly, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, long before Hollywood and "Singin' in the Rain," appeared at the WCP in a 1939 musical revue called "Magazine Page." Alla Nazimova did "Ghosts" there in the 1930s (top ticket price: $2.25). But it wasn't all Ibsen, Shaw or Sherwood: That same decade, famous stripper Sally Rand did W. Somerset Maugham's "Rain" at the WCP as well. In 1940, Hollywood's great John Ford directed a production of "Green Grow the Lilacs" (later musicalized as "Oklahoma!"), with Betty Field and Mildred Natwick. (Who knew Ford directed in the theater?) Tyrone Power and new wife Annabella starred there in "Liliom" in 1941, directed by no less than Lee Strasberg. Elia Kazan directed a production of "Sundown Beach" at WCP in 1948, the same year he won his first Oscar for directing 1947's "Gentleman's Agreement." Ethel Barrymore, Uta Hagen, Tallulah Bankhead, Nazimova, Ruth Gordon, Gertrude Lawrence and Laurette Taylor appeared at WCP often in the '40s, and occasionally Hollywood royalty would visit for a week, including Olivia de Havilland in 1946 in "What Every Woman Knows," Roddy McDowall that same season in "Young Woodley," Claudette Colbert in 1951 in Noel Coward's "Island Fling" and Claude Rains in 1952 in "Jezebel's Husband." The playhouse also was a haven for newcomers (Patricia Neal, Cloris Leachman, Elaine Stritch, Rod Steiger, Jane Fonda and Liza Minnelli among the many), and the casting ideas were often mouthwatering: Imminent playwright Thornton Wilder starred there in two of his own plays, "Our Town" and "The Skin of Our Teeth"; Kitty Carlisle did her husband Moss Hart's "Lady in the Dark"; an unsinging Ezio Pinza appeared in Ferenc Molnar's "The Play's the Thing"; Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish teamed in "The Chalk Garden"; Dolores Del Rio was WCP's "Anastasia"; and productions ran the gamut from a week of the Ballet Theatre with Nora Kaye to Groucho Marx in "Time for Elizabeth" to a 1974 musical version of "Tobacco Road" (huh?). A rich history worth remembering, neatly retold in Somerset-Ward's rich, rewarding book.