Judith Ivey’s dual talents
By Jerry Tallmer
Gus Klingman is what used to be called “sot in his ways.” Amanda Cross is more adventurous. They are no spring chickens. His wife is dead, her husband is dead. He has a grown son, she has a grown daughter.
He lives alone in a three-story Victorian house in northern New Jersey, she’s a visitor in town, briefly, from Johnson City, Tennessee, and it is in Gus’s big, empty house that having struck up a conversation after church they now suddenly find themselves in edgy palaver about this, that, and the other thing:
AMANDA: Do you date much, Gus?
AMANDA: Date. Do you go out on dates?
AMANDA: Why not?
So begins “Southern Comforts,” a tart, warm-blooded, two-character play by Kathleen Clark now in previews toward its October 18 opening as a Primary Stages production at 59E59 Theaters under the guidance of Judith Ivey, who is half a much-awarded actor (“Steaming,” “Hurlyburly,” “Park Your Car in Harvard Yard,” etc.) and, of late years, half a heralded director (“Waiting for Godot,” “Steel Magnolias,” and other works).
Ms. Ivey is nowhere near the age of Gus and Amanda, whom she sees as in their 70s, but she’s not exactly a newcomer either.
“The very first thing I ever directed a ‘Two for the Seesaw’ at Westport [Conn.] Playhouse I was 42,” she said before the start of rehearsals of “Southern Comforts” one recent morning. “I didn’t pursue [the job]. I sort of did it as a favor for a friend who asked me, Stephen Stout. He and I had acted together.
“Then another friend, Kevin Flynn, asked me to direct his one-person show, “The Kitchen Table,’ and I did that. It was at that show that Kate [Kathleen Clark] came backstage and approached me as Ivey the actress. She wanted me to be in her ‘Soccer Moms’ [in which a team of three moms finally beats a team of their three sons]. I read it in dining rooms and so forth and ended up directing it. Then another friend asked me ”
So it’s all a network?
Is there a fine line, or any line, between directing and acting?
“Yes. As a director, number one, you’re The Source. Everybody comes to you for a decision. A good director is a good parent. As such, you join all these worlds together.
“And a good parent,” said Ms. Ivey or Mrs. Tim Braine, the mother of two “is a good guy, who listens, makes decisions that include everybody, is not a dictator.”
And an actor is … ?
“I think a good actor is a good child.”
Well, actress Ivey should know. When she co-starred on Broadway with Jason Robards, Jr., in another nice two-character play, Israel Horovitz’s “Park Your Car in Harvard Yard” pronounced Pahk yah cah in Havahd Yahd) “Jason was just like a father to me.”
We don’t know just where that leaves child Robards. At any rate, a good child is a cut above what Alfred Hitchcock is famously supposed to have said what actors were cattle. Later correcting it to that he’d said they should be treated like cattle.
Judith Ivey was born in El Paso, Texas, but brought up in Marion, Illinois. Her actual father is college administrator Nathan Ivey, her mother is high-school English teacher Dorothy Lewis Ivey.
“Southern Illinois is where I discovered theater. I was an art student, and wanted to go on the school newspaper, but all the positions were filled. The only thing I could do was join the Drama Club, even if I’d never acted before. Everyone said: ‘You’ll never make money at it,’ and here I am, 30 years later … ”
The Amanda of “Southern Comforts” at 59E59 is Penny Fuller. The Gus is Larry Keith, taking over for William “Biff” McGuire, who had to drop out with a bad back. When the play was done in Florida with a different cast and a different director, around a year and a half ago, Ms. Clark asked Ms. Ivey to read it, as a friend.
“Then I stayed on a day longer to see it. The director and cast weren’t coming to New York, so I threw my hat in the ring.”
AMANDA: Are we talkin’ about bein’ roommates or bein’ married?
GUS: You’re talking about sex.
AMANDA: Yes, so, what’s your story?
GUS: Why was I under the impression Southern women were shy and inhibited about this kind of thing?
AMANDA: Obviously you never knew any Southern women.
AMANDA: You interested?
“I know these two characters were based on Kate’s grandparents,” said the director. “Her grandmother decided to move up here [from Tennessee] when her daughter Kate’s mother moved up here.
“You get the idea that Gus and Amanda enjoy making love in their 70s. And I love this play because it celebrates being alive, being human. Which is particularly important in a profession, show business, that discards people [of a certain age]. It’s a lesson to all of us.”
Husband Tim Braine is a television producer; their children are Maggie, 17, and Tom, 12.
“Tim and I met at a Second Stage bowling tournament 18 years ago. I was the celebrity team captain. He at the time was an executive at HBO. We both had been married before.
“I was 38 when I had my first child, here in New York at Beekman Downtown Hos-pital. On my chart it said: elderly mother. Today 38 is young. When I had my son I was 42, and they didn’t put that on the chart any more.”
Just put on the chart: director, quite young enough.
SOUTHERN COMFORTS. By Kathleen Clark. Directed by Judith Ivey. Now in previews toward an October 18 opening at 59E59 Theaters (at that address), (212) 279-4200.