West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 19 | October 10 - 16, 2007


Photo by Carol Rosegg

Bryant Mason and Shawn Elliott in Maxwell Anderson’s “Night Over Taos” as directed by Estelle Parsons at Theater for the New City through Oct. 20.

Estelle Parsons brings back the night

By Jerry Tallmer

Estelle Parsons never rests. If she isn’t acting, she’s directing, or writing, or talking, or planning, or attending to family matters, or just plain living, or gabbing with people like me. I look at her and I see a woman who is just as attractive as she was when she won the Oscar for her performance as the flaky sister in Warren Beatty’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” and that was — my God — 40 years ago. Indeed, more attractive now.

Among all else, she’s a one-woman bridge between the Group Theater of the 1930s — when she was still toddling around Marblehead, Mass. — and the Actors’ Studio of today, of which she was artistic director during five recent years. One of the first things she did there was to mount readings of all 23 plays — some of them very hard to find at this remove — ever put to stage by the Group.

“I knew Bobby Lewis,” she says, as one might tick off the inmates of Valhalla. “And Paula, of course [Paula Miller, who became Mrs. Lee Strasberg], and Lee, of course, and Stella [Adler], and Morris Carnovsky, and Phoebe Brand [Mrs. Carnovsky], and Sandy Meisner, and Burgess Meredith, of course, and Franchot Tone — he was around the Studio a lot.”

Okay now. On the night of March 9, 1932, the Group Theater world premiere of a play by Maxwell Anderson, “Night Over Taos” — a heavy-breathing blank-verse melodrama of feudal Spanish Mexico’s fierce resistance to being swallowed up by the United States — took place at Broadway’s 48th Street Theater.

The huge cast — 30 members of the Group — included Robert Lewis, Paula Miller, Morris Carnovsky, Phoebe Brand, Sanford Meisner, Franchot Tone (who put up the money to open), Stella Adler and her brother Luther Adler. Also Clifford Odets in a bit part, and Burgess Meredith as a walk-on. The director was Lee Strasberg. In the lead role of tyrannical, egomaniacal Pedro Montoya, a sort of non-leftist Fidel Castro/Che Guevara of 1847, was stage and screen star J. Edward Bromberg, who — two decades after “Night Over Taos” — would die of blacklisting and heartburst as an exile seeking work in London.

It is this play, “Night Over Taos,” that is running under Estelle Parsons’s direction through October 20 as an Intar production at Theater for the New City, First Avenue at 10th Street. Her cast, says Ms. Parsons, “has 22 Hispanic actors and three Anglos.” When the Group Theater did it, she dryly observes, “there were no Spanish actors at all.” Yet more dryly: “It lasted a week. Would have closed, except that Stella said: ‘We’ll run one more week without pay.’ Which is what happened.”

The current revival was preceded at the Studio by a “Night Over Taos” directed by Miriam Colon, with Earl Hyman — “He was terrific, got a two-minute ovation” — as Pablo Montoya. At Theater for the New City the Pablo Montoya is Jack Landron. His contentious sons — one of whom loses a bride to papa — are played by Bryant Mason and Mickey Solis.

“This is a classic play,” says its director. “All I do is classics. Not plays by anyone who comes in off the street. This guy [Maxwell Anderson] can write. There’s not a scene in it that’s not exciting — if done right. There was a time when Maxwell Anderson was thought to be greater than O’Neill. Now?” Her tone changes. “Who cares?”

Discreet inquiry: Had she ever thought of cutting it a bit, here and there?

“I cut one scene, but I’m putting it back in, next week. I never like to cut things if you don’t have to. Why do that?” she demanded. “So people can get out earlier? Do people cut an opera? ‘Oh, those are just minor arias … ’ If people don’t like theater, that’s really sad.”

Ms. Parsons remembers when Lee Strasberg came to see her in “Miss Margarida’s Way” at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in 1977, “and was blown away.” She remembers all the way back to when Sandy Meisner came to see her in “Nightcap,” Jerry Herman’s first revue, at the Showplace, on West 4th Street — “it’s a Laundromat now.”

That was 1958, and she was 29. “Sandy got so excited. I was so stupid, I didn’t know what it meant. I was trying to bring up my kids, I’d just got divorced, had no money.”

The kids were and are her twin daughters. Abbie and Martha — “who now both live in California … isn’t that terrible?” Their father was prolific magazine and book writer Richard Gehman, “who was married about seven times and had many, many kids, I was wife No. 3. He was a heavy drinker, like Norman Mailer and all those guys, and died of course at 51. But now I’ve been married – what? 30, 33 years? – to somebody else, Peter Zimroth, a lawyer at Arnold & Porter. We have a son, Abraham, who’s 24 and just graduated in photography from NYU Tisch. I think they call it ‘imaging’ now.”

Then there’s grandson Eben, whose mother is Estelle’s daughter Abbie. “He’s right tackle for the University of Arizona, 6-foot-7 and 310 pounds, and is named for my father, Eben Parsons, who like his father before him was a lawyer and Harvard man. The line goes all the way back to 1632 and Cornet Joseph Parsons, a fur trader — bears and things — on the Merrimac River. My mother’s side of the family goes back to Sweden.”

We have to squeeze a little Italian in here too, at least by proxy — and that little Italian’s name is Al Pacino. He and Estelle have been thick together — professionally — for years, most particularly in the production of Oscar Wilde’s “Salomé” they’ve done at the Actors’ Studio and St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn and the Ethel Barrymore on Broadway, she as director, he as Herod, Tetrarch of Judea, who has the hots for stepdaughter Salomé, as who wouldn’t when that Salomé is Marisa Tomei.

One of these days Pacino may take the wraps off “Salomaybe?,” a documentary film along the lines of his fascinating “Looking for Richard” — Richard III, that is.

“This one’s all about Salomé and all about Oscar Wilde,” says Ms. Parson. “A personal journey of Al’s. He just changes it around all the time, so you never know what’s what.”

She’ll wait for it, and so will we. Meanwhile there’s “Night Over Taos.” Has Estelle Parsons ever been to Taos? “Yes, I went last year to see Eben play football.” Oscar Wilde and Maxwell Anderson were rooting like crazy on the 50-yard line.

NIGHT OVER TAOS. By Maxwell Anderson. Directed by Estelle Parsons. With Veronica Reyes, Maria Helan, Yaremis Felix, Sibyl Santiago, Irma-Estel LaGuerre, Sarah Nina Hayon, Emilio Delgado, Miriam Colon Valle, Hortencia Colorado, Mercedes Herrera, Shawn Elliott, Cheryl Lynn Bowers, Ricardo Valdez, Bryant Mason, David Anzueto, James Gaie, Liam Torres, Juan Luis Acevedo, Mickey Solis, Jack Landron, Ron Moreno, Marshall Factora, Mike Roche, Michael Frederic. An Intar production through October 20 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, (212) 254-1109. 

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