Volume 79, Number 33 | January 20 - 26, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


DUET FOR SOLO VOICE
Written by David Scott Milton
Directed by Stanley Allan Sherman
Performed by Jonathan Slaff
January 28 through February 14
At Theater for the New City (155 First Avenue at 10th Street)
For tickets, call 212-868-4444 or visit
www.smarttix.com
Photo by Nadia Kitirath

Jonathan Slaff as Leonard Pelican

Publicist by day, performer by night
Schizo Slaff revives ‘crazy, bitter comedy’

BY JERRY TALLMER

There are two Jonathan Slaffs. One is Jonathan Slaff the busy Off-Broadway press agent. The other is Jonathan Slaff the actor.

Both are very nice hard-working guys who look and enthusiastically think about twenty years younger than they are — or he is.

In “Duet for Solo Voice” — a crazy, bitter comedy in which actor Slaff plays two people at once, or virtually at once — an insanely split personality.

One half is the paranoid would-be novelist Leonard Pelican, night manager of the sleazy 43rd Street Hotel. The other half, conjured up in Pelican’s tortured imagination, is Vassily Chort — murderous agent of the NKVD, Joseph Stalin’s secret police. Chort talks like this, in heavily accented burlesque Rooshian:

“Hard-boiled egg and Beluga caviar. Exceptional! I remember sitting with dear Stalin and Comrade Beria. It was in Lubyanka prison, fourth floor, interrogation room. Kaganovich was there and so was Molotov. It was just before the trial of Bukharin and Rykov. We were all eating sandwiches, caviar and hard-boiled egg…Beria told an amusing story. When Gregory Zinoviev was being dragged to his execution, he cried out: ‘Hear, oh Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is one!’ Stalin laughed until the tears came into his eyes.”

In point of fact, California-based David Scott Milton, who wrote “Duet for Solo Voice” and many another play and screenplay, was born into a working-class Jewish family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1934.

“He told me,” says Slaff, “he has two obsessions: news and Jews.”

Slaff himself, born into a nice Jewish family in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1950, thinks one of his maternal grandmother’s aunts was Polina Zhemchuzhina, Molotov’s free-speaking Jewish wife who was always getting her husband into trouble with Stalin and the Politburo.

Says actor Slaff of nutty Leonard (pronounced Lee-oh-nard) Pelican: “This is a writer who hates himself so much, he has to create a devil he can hate more, an assassin of the NKVD.”

The first New York exposure of this play was in 1970 by director Wynn Handman’s American Place Theatre, then at St. Clement’s Church on West 46th Street.

Five years later, with its title shortened to “Duet,” it was done on Broadway, in tandem with Eugene O’Neill’s “Hughie” — also set in a sleazy Times Square hotel — with Ben Gazzara in both halves of the bill. A young Jonathan Slaff saw that production, little thinking he would someday play those instant-change two madmen in “Duet.”

In 1979, Jonathan started a decade of acting classes under Wynn Handman. It was when he went back to Handman for a refresher in 2008 that Leonard Pelican came back into Jonathan’s life.

“One of the things Wynn had me work on was this play. Not the Russian part, just Pelican, as an exercise. Then Wynn said: ‘Why don’t you do the Russian,’ and that’s when I really clicked into the part. I worked on it a little bit more and a little bit more. Last spring I went to Wynn and said: ‘What do you think I should do with this? Leave it in the classroom, or…?’ Wynn said: ‘I think you should do it. Nobody’s seen it now, or have long forgotten it. It’ll be all yours.”

Jonathan called Crystal Field, a person important in his life and the lives of hundreds of others. It was at Theater for the New City that he had done his first musical in New York (“Atonements,” 1978); his first leading role (in “Upstate,” by Crystal herself, 1998): his first work as publicist (at Crystal’s suggestion) and took his first (now prolific) theatrical photographs.

He had also, for ten years, carved a great many Jack-o-Lanterns for TNC’s annual Village Halloween Costume Ball — “until I got allergic to pumpkins” and had to stop.

“Now I went to Crystal and said I’ve found a part that agrees with me. She didn’t say: ‘Okay, a one-night thing.’ She said: ‘You’re doing a run.’ ”

Slaff’s phony Russianism is something to see — and hear.

“I don’t know where the fuck it comes from,” Jonathan says. “It just comes out, erupts. I was working on a lot of things — Nureyev, Barishnikov, ‘Boris Godunov’—but was just fishing, and threw them all away.”

The instant changes, where Pelican exits for the blink of an eye and immediately reenters as Chort, are hellish fast and mean slapping on a mask, a hat, and a Mackintosh trench coat.

Jonathan’s parents were Lyle and Muriel Slaff. His father was in the magazine and newspaper distribution business, his mother was president of the Little Theater of Wilkes-Barre, where one of the shows she produced was the first American amateur production of “The Fantasticks.”

“As a child actor,” says their son, “I was so successful as young Patrick in ‘Auntie Mame’ that Julian Stein, musical director of ‘The Fantasticks’ [on Sullivan Street and then Wilkes-Barre], recruited me into ‘The Yearling’ [which was scheduled for Broadway]. This was in 1963. I was 12, and a little shrimp.”

He’s no longer a little shrimp. “I’m 5-11, but you can say six feet.” By the time “The Yearling” reached Broadway, two years later, Jonathan was too big for the part.

So one thing leads to another to another and here we are. Jonathan and his wife, actress Shirley Curtin, have long lived on Perry Street. Their daughter Julia was born in 1995.

At Yale, Jonathan “did not pursue theater,” but was leaning toward it while at Columbia Business School, here in the big city. He has had a flourishing career as an actor in television commercials. On the way up the theatrical ladder he some years ago — before Theater Row was Theater Row — had a bit part there in a court-martial scene.

The play was Calder Willingham’s “End As a Man.” The first-ever professional production of “End As a Man” had been in 1963 at the Theatre de Lys on Christopher Street. Its unforgettable star had been Ben Gazzara as a bullying military-academy cadet — the same Ben Gazzara who would twelve years later do “Duet” on Broadway.

What goes around comes around. “I have ice cube for backbone,” says Vassily Chort. 

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