Great Moments in New York Theater – Alan Bates & Frank Langella in Fortune’s Fool
In my story about seeing Christopher Plummer in Barrymore, I mentioned that I have a lot of favourites. It’s usually a list of about five or ten; favourite movies, favourite books, favourite actors, favourite friends.. you know how it goes.
Fortune’s Fool was an especially important theatrical outing for me because Misters Langella and Bates are also two of my favourites. I do, in fact, remember when each of them landed on my list of favourites, too. Alan Bates did a made for cable teleplay of Separate Tables by Terrence Rattigan in the early Eighties. His co stars were Julie Christie, Irene Worth and Claire Bloom. I caught the showing on (I think it was) HBO and I taped it and I have spent the last (almost) three decades watching it. After seeing that wonderful film, I investigated his earlier works and the works that came after and I never saw him do one single false thing on film. Frank Langella had been on my radar since the movie Dracula came out because it was THE THE THE movie that everyone was talking about that year. A teenager at the time, I didn’t really appreciate it but, over the years I developed an appreciation for the actor. My passion for him, though, happened on Broadway. Since moving here we have seen almost every single stage production he has done and, with each one, he has drawn me closer and closer to him until he captured me. I am a devoted fan of the artist.
To see Alan Bates live for the first time, while acting with Frank Langella, was destined to be a treat for me. Except. The play they were doing was some old Russian play by Turgenev. Gee Willikers. Wasn’t THAT going to be a huge bore. I was just miserable thinking about sitting in a theater for two hours trying to keep up with high brow language and Russian names that I wouldn’t be able to tell apart in a story I would not be able to follow. Well wasn’t that just my luck? I mean, REALLY.
Well, as it turned out, it WAS just my luck.
It seems I may have been smarter than I had thought… or maybe the actors in the lead parts were just so unbelievably talented, so adept at their craft, that they could make even the most obtuse foreign language play accessible to not really lofty gay boy more used to timesteps and sequins.
Yeah. That was it.
These two wonderful artists went toe to toe, playing off each other with deliciously controlled broad mannered acting. They had marvelously defined characters to play and poetic language to tell a story racked with sympathy, humour and pathos. I found myself sitting forward in my seat, leaning over the rail on the mezzanine ledge, trying to get closer to the action (can I just say how much I love that front row of the mezz? It’s always a pleasure to see a show from that vantage point). I can still see, eight years later, the detail in the set, the costumes and Mr Bates sad face, Mr Langella’s animated one, as the two of them volleyed back and forth like a couple of tennis pros. This was real acting, real craftsmanship. This was one of my dreams come true – but no dream I had ever thought of because in no dream did I ever envision the opportunity, the very idea of these two men whose work I adore, acting on the same stage. And to have it be SO accessible! It was like when you see Shakespeare done properly and you understand it, even though you have never really been able to follow the pentameter… or when you see an opera in a foreign language and the music and the performance is strong enough for you to follow the storyline, in spite of your deafness to the actual language.
It was one of the nights of my life. Funny isn’t it? To think of the important things that happen in your life? Birth, death, marriage, love… all those things and more… nobody ever thinks that an obscure 19th Century Russian play being produced on the Broadway stage for the first time would be one of those nights. But it was.
As with Mr Plummer and Barrymore, imagine my delight in having my glee at the production validated when both my idols took home Tony awards for their work in the play.
Validation is important.
I wish I had had the chance to validate Mr Bates to his face. I wish I had waited at the stage door to tell him what his work had meant to me. For 16 months later he was dead.
It was one of the few times I cried at the death of a celebrity.