Volume 74, Number 25 | Octuber 20 - 26 , 2004


A benefit reading
($50) of the play by Eric Bentley
Mon, 7 pm, Oct. 25
Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre
Symphony Space, Broadway and 95th Street,

Craig Smith and Elise Stone with children Tesfahun and Hakima.

McCarthy era lessons more relevant than ever

New theater company resurrects Bentley play

By Jerry Tallmer

THE CHAIRMAN: [J. Parnell Thomas, R-N.J.]: Any real American would be proud to answer the question, “Are you, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” — any REAL American!

MR, LARDNER [scriptwriter Ring Lardner, Jr.]: I could answer it, but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning.

— from the transcript of a hearing before the House Committee on Un-American Activities [HUAC], October 30, 1947, and from the 1972 play by Eric Bentley, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been”

Craig Smith and Elise Stone, actors, husband and wife, got tired of hating themselves in the morning. And that’s why, with three people they’ve worked with over the years at the Jean Cocteau Repertory Company — Jason Crowl, Angela Madden, Michael Surabian — they are now founding a company of their own, the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.

On Monday, October 25, 7 p.m., at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre of Symphony Space, 95th and Broadway, there will be a reading of Eric Bentley’s “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been,” a time capsule of the HUAC and blacklist era, with proceeds ($50 a ticket) to go toward start-up of the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.

Playwright Bentley will narrate. Michael Surabian will direct. Craig Smith will be one of the actors. Elise Stone will produce.

Smith and Stone’s connection with Eric Bentley go way back. Counting off on their fingers the other day, they came up with the following Bentley translations/adaptations from Brecht, Wedekind, et al. in which they have starred, one year or another, at Cocteau Rep: “Man’s a Man,” “Woyzeck,” “Leonce and Lena,” “Lulu,” “Edward II,” and — Elise Stone terrific in the title role — “Mother Courage.”

Are you fellows going to invite John Ashcroft?

“Good idea.”

Before there was an “Are You Now . . . “ for theater there was Bentley’s 900-page “30 Years of Treason.”

(Viking Press, 1971; Nation paperback).

“The play is drawn 97 percent from that big book,” Eric Bentley said the other afternoon in his rambling Riverside Drive apartment. “When I was working on the book, I was impressed by the fact that many of the passages in it read like theatrical dialogue.

“I typed up a long version and read it to some friends one Sunday evening. It took five hours. Tony Kushner can hold people for five hours, but . . . “

Dry pause. “So I started shortening it. Now it’s down to a bit more than two hours, but not much.”

The first production of “Are You Now . . . “ was by the Yale Repertory on November 8, 1972, the day after Nixon was reelected. It was subsequently done at Riverside Church and other venues in Manhattan, before triumphant journeys abroad.

“We had a gimmick, here in New York,” said Bentley.

“We cast a different star in the role of Lillian Hellman each week. We started with Liza Minnelli.

Halston came to the theater every night. He told her: ‘You shouldn’t be in a play like this. It’s very dangerous.’ “

Lillian Hellman (“I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions”) has been herself cut out of the present version, but crawling Larry Parks and defiant Paul Robeson and clowning but furious Lionel Stander and bewildered Abe Burrows and name-namer Jerome Robbins and self-hating Sterling Hayden and self-justifying Elia Kazan are all there.

“I have done the state some service, and they know’t,” said Othello. Robeson had done mankind some service — great service — black mankind but also every other kind, and his anger, his contempt of the red-baiters, and his pure guts, however Stalinistically misguided, make a fitting close to Bentley’s piece for the stage.

Craig Smith showed up at the door of the Cocteau in 1973 and reached for a broom. A tall gangling fellow from Beltrami, Minnesota —”actually Craig was born near Fertile, Minnesota,” his wife would like the press to know — Smith has played every possible part a male could play with that company in some 200 productions, always with distinction, clarity, generosity, and has been its leading man for the past 20 years.

Elise Stone, a dark-haired flaming beauty born and bred in the Bronx, came to the Cocteau in 1985. She has been that theater’s forceful, flexible leading lady since soon thereafter.

They were married in 1989, and have lived forever in the East Village. They recently acquired — became the parents of — two children, with a third on the way. “All my children are born in Ethiopia,” said Elise Stone Smith. They are Tesfahun, a boy who is now 7; Hakima, a girl, 5; and — “we hope by Christmas” — Kerim, a boy, 10.

For Elise Stone, for Craig Smith, the time for departure from Cocteau Rep finally snapped into place this summer, some five years after the arrival of a new efficiency-minded producing artistic director in the person of David Fuller.

“We haven’t really totally worked out an answer to why we quit,” said Smith. “I want to be truthful about it. David Fuller had kind of marginalized all of the senior company members. But beyond that, the Cocteau began to become something other than it - “

“ — pretended,” his wife threw in.

“Than it presented to the outside world,” said Smith. “In our opinion, anyway, the quality of the work had gotten flat. Every company has peaks and valleys, but the Cocteau of late has had hardly any peaks.”

The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is looking toward new peaks. Craig Smith and Elise Stone and Eric Bentley are now and have ever been mountain climbers.

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