Jennifer Westfeldt, best known for playing the title character in Kissing Jessica Stein, the 2001 girl-loving-girl movie that she co-wrote and co-produced, is currently making her Broadway debut in a girl-loving-girl musical revival, Wonderful Town .
What? you ask? A gay musical?
Well, not really. The Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green “love letter” to Depression-era New York, with its opening song about Christopher Street, isn’t totally gay-maybe just 40 percent.
The story, adapted from the play My Sister Eileen by Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields, is about two ambitious sisters coming to make it big in New York from “Why oh why” Ohio, and there’s a lot of sister-on-sister hugging on the way to the happy ending.
“Huh, yeah-I guess there is a little hugging. But I hope there’s not too much. I think that’s us trying to infuse the script with a little more depth than it has,” said Ms. Westfeldt, curled up on a taupe sofa under a Kandinsky poster in her Upper West Side apartment on a recent evening. She’d just returned home from the matinee performance. Her dark blond hair was disheveled from being under a wig; her heart-shaped lips were very pink around the edges, having only just been scrubbed clean.
Upon reflection, she agreed that the hugging was actually kind of significant. “Like my movie, it’s the story of two women helping each other find happiness,” she continued. “The love of the sisters is the story’s meat. They both find their way in the big city and get a little wiser in the end. There’s truth in their journey. It’s a sweet and happy package.”
In the play, Ms. Westfeldt-who normally lives in Los Angeles with her boyfriend, actor Jon Hamm-plays Eileen Sherwood, the young, pretty ingenue who wants to be an actress and serves as the Lucy to sister Ruth’s Ricky. Ruth, a ballsy, wise-cracking aspiring journalist, is played by Broadway veteran and multiple Tony-winner Donna Murphy, who’s a wiry 45 and looks too old and frail to be the comely and youthful Ms. Westfeldt’s age-approximate sibling. But Ms. Murphy’s a pro-her rendition of “One Hundred Easy Ways (to Lose a Man)” is worth the price of the ticket alone-and she and Ms. Westfeldt make a gosh-darn-swell team.
Ms. Westfeldt set down her glass of red wine and uncurled herself a second time to try to stop her bathroom faucet from dripping (“Chinese water torture,” she called it). When she returned, she explained that early in her career, after graduating from Yale, she’d done lots of musicals but then moved to L.A., where, pre– Kissing Jessica Stein , she’d generally get cast as the pretty girl next-door or the good-girlfriend type.
Writing Kissing Jessica Stein -in which she plays an anxious single woman who experiments with lesbianism-was her effort to create a different kind of role for herself. “But after Kissing Jessica Stein , I’d get the parts that were edgy and neurotic and type-A.”
Eileen, she explained, “is the full-on opposite of Jessica Stein-which is nice, because as an actor what you always want to do is the opposite of what you’ve just done.
“I felt like Kissing Jessica Stein was about a girl who was too smart for her own good, getting in her own way and being overly judgmental of people and unable to live in the moment,” she continued. “And I feel like Eileen is literally so in the moment that she falls in love with everyone she meets and doesn’t overthink at all. She doesn’t even think some of the time! She leads with her heart and doesn’t overanalyze anything.”
For her part, Ms. Westfeldt-who auditioned for the play on a whim in September, when she was here for a wedding-feels that she’s a mix of both personality types.
“I’m probably dead in the middle of the two Sherwood sisters. I’m an overthinker, and I can get so lost in the details and the ‘if-thens’ in making decisions in my life,” she said. “But on the other hand, I can be idealistic and overly optimistic and gullible.”
When she feels like she’s too much of the latter, however, she can just be the sweet actress Eileen and turn to her own real-life Ruth Sherwood: her sister Amy Westfeldt, four years older and a reporter for the Associated Press in New York. “It’s a crazy parallel,” she said. And yes, they do hug a lot.
-Anna Jane Grossman
Return of Ka- ching !
Very late on Wednesday, Dec. 17, Bob Shaye and the other big honchos at New Line, producers of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King , the third and final installment of the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy, gathered opening-night box-office receipts at Elaine’s, which seems to be the closest place around here to Middle Earth.
New Line has a special phone line just for them at the restaurant. “They set up the, the-what do you call it? The laptop. It has a special modem,” said Elaine’s owner, Elaine Kaufman, on the afternoon before the event. “They used to have to plug the modem into the light fixture,” she continued, “but now they have a special modem and they get the different figures. It’s very exciting.”
On Dec. 30, Ms. Kaufman told The Transom that she’d had a blast on that special night. “Elijah Wood came. Cute kid, very nice-no agenda,” she said. “And the blond kid was there-Owen something? [Orlando Bloom.] Oh, and the other kid-the English one with the beard … Ian McKellen.”
Ms. Kaufman has been hosting such opening-night parties for New Line for close to a decade, she said.
“Last time we did it, it was-what was it, The Elf ? That guy Ferrell came?” she said, adding that she hadn’t yet seen the final installment of The Lord of the Rings but enjoyed the first two very much. “They were both O.K. You know, wonderful films-not throwaways.”
Despite her fondness for the films, however, Ms. Kaufman wasn’t serving any Lord of the Rings –style grub.
“We make all the food for them as they come in. Fresh,” she said. “But Middle Earth food? Honey, I dunno. You have to call New Line to find out about that.”
Rocco vs. Julian: The Epilogue
Rocco DiSpirito and Julian Niccolini have canoodled and made up. On Dec. 7, the New York Post ‘s Page Six column reported some harsh comments from Mr. Niccolini regarding Mr. DiSpirito’s alleged intention to bring the camera crew from his reality-TV show, The Restaurant , to the Volunteers of America benefit at the Four Seasons, where Mr. DiSpirito was supposed to cook that night. Mr. Niccolini even went so far as to say that the NBC show shouldn’t be called The Restaurant , but rather Nightmare at Rocco’s . Although a food fight seemed imminent, the two men told The Transom that nothing happened. “Rocco and Julian Niccolini were on good terms,” said a spokeswoman for Mr. DiSpirito. And Mr. Niccolini said that as soon as Mr. DiSpirito arrived in his S.U.V., the two of them went to the Grill Room bar for some champagne. “The issue I had was with the camera and the show, not with Rocco himself,” said Mr. Niccolini. “That night,” he added, “everybody was very pleasant. Champagne was flowing freely-Dom Perignon, actually.”
Abe’s Other List
What do you get when you put a rabbi, a Troma actress and a recently paroled parking-garage magnate in a room together?
Abe Hirschfeld’s 84th birthday!
On the frosty morning of Dec. 14, Mr. Hirschfeld celebrated his second birthday since being paroled in August 2002 after a jail sentence resulting from his efforts to hire a hit man to kill a former business partner. The soirée was held at Madison Avenue home of the onetime owner of the New York Post , where the craggy, unshaven birthday boy-dressed in a red smoking jacket and a checkered red-and-white bowtie-smoked a Cohiba that he admitted was not an acceptable part of his diet. “My son-in-law sent me a package, and it’s my first cigar in eight months. Otherwise I wouldn’t smoke it,” he said.
Mr. Hirschfeld was comfortably perched on the couch, at a roughly 30-degree angle, next to a black-clad actress named Lisa Gaye, star of Troma’s Class of Nuke ‘Em High Part II: Subhumanoid Meltdown and Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. Ms. Gaye also claimed to be appearing in a forthcoming Sci-Fi Channel reality show that she couldn’t discuss “because of the $5 million confidentiality agreement.”
“The Muslims are the best friends the Jews have,” Mr. Hirschfeld said suddenly as he glanced out the living-room window, which overlooked Madison Avenue. “Throughout history, there has never been a Holocaust in a Muslim country-not like in Poland, which was extremely anti-Semitic.” In fact, he said, the root of our President’s problems is the lack of “Arabs” in the cabinet.
Mr. Hirschfeld keeps an imaginary list of men responsible for “the destruction of New York.” At the top is Governor George Pataki. The birthday boy pointed to the wall across the room, which was adorned with an Al Hirschfeld pen-and-ink drawing of the Governor wearing a yarmulke. “There’s Pataki at my 75th birthday. He’s lighting the Hanukkah candles. I saw George Pataki on Thursday. We are not on good terms. But he said to me, ‘Only you can make peace in the world.’ I was very shocked.”
Standing by the portrait was Mr. Hirschfeld’s red-haired daughter Rachel, who recently finished law school and was, allegedly, one of the seven people on her father’s very real “hit list”-all of whom were supposed to die, at Mr. Hirschfeld’s behest, at the hands of Larry Davis, a convicted cop-shooter. (Mr. Hirschfeld, it should be noted, has consistently denied these allegations.) The Post , which Mr. Hirschfeld briefly owned for 16 mutinous days, reported that Rachel was in good company: Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Ira Gammerman was also on the list of those slated for termination.
Mr. Hirschfeld dropped a couple more names from his other list-the one of people killing the city: Randy Daniels, Rudolph Giuliani (“He was a very good undertaker-nothing else. If there’s a funeral, he’s there”) and Rupert Murdoch. There seemed to be a lingering bitterness about Mr. Murdoch, “who stole from me the Post .”
But he was not at all unhappy about a New York Law Journal article-it’s part of his press kit, “Hirschfeld Health and Economy”-entitled “The Law of Bribery in New York.” Here’s the gist: P.L. §215.22, known colloquially as “Hirschfeld’s Law,” was created in response to Abe’s conduct during his first criminal trial on the hit-man matter. So grateful was Mr. Hirschfeld for the hung jury that he reportedly gave or offered to give $2,500 to each of the jurors-not illegal, but sternly frowned upon. The State Legislature decided that the incident “set a dangerous precedent in that it increases the likelihood that a juror’s independence might be compromised … by the mere possibility of receiving some future monetary benefit or other ‘reward’ from a party to the proceeding.” (At a second trial, Mr. Hirschfeld was eventually found guilty of second-degree criminal solicitation.)
Mr. Hirschfeld smiled broadly and pointed to the article. “I’m the only one who has a law named after him,” he said. Shortly after that, his grandchildren, Benjamin, Jonathan and Matthew, brought out an enormous chocolate cake. As he stood up, The Transom noticed that Mr. Hirschfeld’s fly was open.
Rabbi Schlomo Hagar, a friend of Abe’s for a mere three months, gave a rousing, nonsensical speech during which he demanded that everyone chant: “Long live Abe Hirschfeld! Long live Abe Hirschfeld!” Everyone did, with a lessening sense of urgency each time.
And then came the jokes.
“It’s Christmas time,” said Abe, “and I realized that Jesus couldn’t have been Jewish … “
(At this point, a gray-haired man to the left whispered, “Here we go …. “)
” … since he went to the Last Supper, not the early-bird special!”
Everyone laughed heartily.
“Barbara Walters said to Bill Clinton, ‘Monica Lewinsky says you have a very small penis.’ ‘Not true,’ said Clinton. ‘She just has a very big mouth.'”
“Awwww!” said the crowd. “Come on, Abe …. “
-Elon R. Green
Much Ado About Yanks
On the evening of Dec. 14, Sir Peter Hall, modern-day avatar of Shakespeare’s spirit, dropped into the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College and offered one of the most shattering pronouncements the American theater has heard in decades, a Nicene Creed of acting that in one breath banished the myth that American actors have to mash their speech into heaving parodies of the Queen’s English if they want to perform Hamlet .
“I love the sound of Americans doing Shakespeare,” cooed Sir Peter, the legendary British director who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960. “This is the truth: I love the American sound! [It’s] much closer to Elizabethan than the clipped, gray way I’m speaking to you as an ‘educated Englishman.’ And when an American actor really goes for it and stops pretending to be a British actor playing Shakespeare, which is horrible, then the thing really lives.”
Sir Peter, who had jetted to New York to receive the Shakespeare Society Medal, is round and balding, a suit-swaddled cross between, say, the earthy Sir Toby Belch and the otherworldly Prospero. He has directed over 300 plays (including 29 by Shakespeare), won two Tonys and been knighted by the queen for his “service to the British Theatre.” His latest book is Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players .
“You have a huge opportunity here that in some respects you’re not taking,” he scolded his Yankee audience. “You think to play Shakespeare, you should sound like those English! But the actual sound of American is magic to me.”
Too bad not a single English-accent-envying actor was at the Kaye Playhouse to hear his words-just real-deal Brits like Patrick Stewart, Rosemary Harris and Vanessa Redgrave.
Will someone please tell Madonna?
The Transom Also Hears ….
On Saturday, Dec. 28, Senator Hillary Clinton, former President Bill Clinton and their daughter Chelsea ventured en famille to see Avenue Q , Broadway’s raunchy puppet musical, marking the end of the show’s most profitable week since it opened to rave reviews last summer.
The evening was made possible by the letters G and H- the rows in which the former First Family and their “people” were ensconced.
“There’s a part in the show where we go out into the audience passing a hat, and we were told to avoid those rows,” said one of the show’s puppeteers, Stephanie D’Abruzzo. “They said if we reached out to them, we might be tackled by the Secret Service.”
Backstage after the show, Senator Clinton joked about not wanting to be photographed with Rod, the conservative-minded in-the-closet puppet, while Mr. Clinton played with Trekkie Monster, the puppet that sings the catchy song “The Internet Is for Porn.”
Mr. Clinton also had a lengthy conversation with Kate Monster, the show’s zaftig female lead. Fair, with big blue eyes and thick black hair, Kate’s a young puppet who’s always looking for love in all the wrong places. Several pictures were taken of her caressing his face. “She flirted with him,” Ms. D’Abruzzo said. “And he seemed to like her a lot.”