Volume 79, Number 7 | July 22 - 28, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Two old friends who go great together  

Henry and Taylor dive into dysfunction with conviction, aplomb

By Scott harrah

Comic writing, acting and directing legend Buck Henry had not done live theater since 2002, when he appeared on Broadway as a curmudgeonly professor in “Morning’s at Seven.”  But when he read the script for playwright Lisa Ebersole’s comedy-drama “Mother,” he jumped at the chance.

“I liked the play and the part especially,” says Henry. “Some people are going to think of it as a comedy, and some will think it of it as a kind of melodrama.”

Henry was especially drawn to the part of Joseph (the cranky, cantankerous father of a dysfunctional family) — noting the playwright “channeled” him because he’s so much like the character. “I’m judgmental, I’m brusque, I’m irritable,” admits Henry.

He was already a fan of Ebersole’s  “Brother,” a 2005 off-Broadway play about two women and a stranger they bring home to a late-night birthday celebration. “Brother”  explores issues of race and social injustice, and an indie film adaptation of the acclaimed show was released last year.

Although Henry describes “Mother” as “a very accurate portrayal” of American families and the problems they face, he points out “It’s not ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’.”

The story focuses on the shenanigans of the Leroy family, on vacation at an upscale West Virginia resort. The plot thickens with matters of infidelity, sibling rivalry and heavy drinking, as well as an attempted kidnapping. Henry’s character bickers with his glamorous wife Kitty (Holland Taylor) and their two kids, Kate (played by playwright Lisa Ebersole) and Jackie (Haskell King). All the action takes place in the resort’s dining room, but the story has many twists and turns that get audiences wondering what’s happening offstage.

Henry has always been attracted to cutting-edge comedy. In recent years, he’s appeared on TV shows ranging from “30 Rock” and “Will and Grace” to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” but his television roots go back to the 1960s. He was a cast member on “The New Steve Allen Show”  (1961) and “That Was The Week That Was.” (1964-65). He co-created “Get Smart” with Mel Brooks, which ran from 1965 to 1970. The show won him an Emmy in 1967 for Outstanding Writing Achievement in a Comedy.  How does Henry feel about being part of such an iconic TV series?

“Some of it was fun,” he says, adding that he loved the process of discovering new jokes for the show. “But it was very hard to do a series back then. It still is.”

As for his work in front of the TV camera, Henry is perhaps best known (and most fondly remembered) for hosting “Saturday Night Live” 10 times from 1976 to 1980. There, he played such recurring characters as Howard (a sadistic stunt coordinator) and Uncle Roy (a pedophile babysitter).  

“I loved doing ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” he says. “I’ve always loved doing live television.” 

Henry wrote the screenplay for the Golden Globe-nominated 1995 hit “To Die For,” directed by Gus Van Sant. On that film, he worked with old friend Holland Taylor — the Emmy-winning actress known for playing free-spirited Evelyn Harper on the hit sitcom “Three and a Half Men.”

Taylor plays Kitty, the titular mom in “Mother.” Acting alongside Taylor is terrific, Henry says. “It’s particularly nice to work with friends. And we’re old. I like to yell at her.”

Two things made Taylor want to accept the role of Kitty:  playwright and co-star Lisa Ebersole’s script and the chance to work with Henry again.

“I knew Buck was in it before I read it.” she says. “And I just thought the experience of having Buck be such an enormous pain in the ass would be fun. Who could resist?”

The play has been a blast for Taylor, currently on summer hiatus from “Two and a Half Men,”  a show for which she’s received three Emmy nominations. She describes “Mother” as “a really technical piece” whose “interlocked, interlaced dialogue” is a challenge to perform “perfectly so that the audience can hear it.” 

For Taylor, time spent on the stage means a chance to breathe life into a character more nuanced than those she’s played on television. Sitcom roles, she notes, “are necessarily sketchily written — very little depth. Kitty is different, because the author wants the audience to know about her — not have her function as a foil.” 

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