Mandy Patinkin Gets Choked Up at the Public Theater

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About midway through the Joseph Papp Public Theater-New York Shakespeare Festival’s Gala 2000 at the Chelsea Piers on March 13, producer George Wolfe got up and likened working on the Public’s latest Broadway-bound project, The Wild Party , to performing “open-heart surgery on yourself on the No. 2 train at 3 o’clock in the morning.” (No doubt, at least a partial reference to the fact that the show will be competing with the Manhattan Theater Club’s Off-Broadway version.)

Surgery aside, the Public’s gala felt like a late-night subway ride, too: slightly surreal, slightly nutty and occasionally unsettling, as when Ute Lemper paused in the middle of singing, “I Am a Vamp,” a Weimar-era cabaret song with vampiric references, to say, “Hitler, just shut up, O.K.? You’re dead! Go back to sleep!”

And though those who were along for the ride were distinctly of the non-straphanger variety– Talk editor Tina Brown and America Online president Robert Pittman had brought together 500 of their friends and acquaintances–many of the benefitgoers seemed to have donned that cloak of invisibility that is so much a part of subway etiquette. The room contained some of the most talked about people in the city, including Ms. Brown, Mr. Pittman, embattled Seagram chief executive Edgar Bronfman Jr., David Bowie, his model wife, Iman, and New York Post gossip columnist Liz Smith (who got the full Talk treatment, being seated next to Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels at Ms. Brown’s table) but, chalk it up to the frigid weather, there was more chance of getting sparks out of the parmesan crisp that was served with the salad course.

Mr. Pittman was first up to the microphone, and he established the evening’s running joke. In his authoritative voice–imagine Charlie Rose without a trace of indecision–Mr. Pittman referred to the evening’s honoree, actor and The Wild Party star Mandy Patinkin, as Mandy Potamkin . (Later, in the evening, when The Transom asked Mr. Patinkin if he had recently sold Mr. Pittman an automobile, the actor laughed. “That happens to me all the time,” said Mr. Patinkin, without any trace of irritation, adding that when he was a student at Juilliard, one guy befriended him, then asked, “Can your father help” with the brand new Chevy he had in mind. Mr. Patinkin said that when he explained that he was not related to the Potamkin automobile family, “I never saw that guy again.”)

After Ms. Lemper’s musical interlude, in which she sang the lyrics: “I bite my men and suck them dry, and then I bake them in a pie,” Mr. Wolfe took the microphone to issue a breathless round of thank yous and to do a little schtick. “I’m babbling a little bit, but, hey, you know that happens,” said Mr. Wolfe, who often seems to be channeling an adult version of Family Matters character Steve Urkel.

Sunday in the Park With George director James Lapine took the stage to present Mr. Patinkin with his award, but not before having some fun with Mr. Pittman’s pronunciation gaffe. After telling the audience the correct pronunciation of Mr. Patinkin’s name, Mr. Lapine pronounced his own surname as “La-peen” and then went on to mispronounce the name of the award that Mr. Patinkin was receiving, the Susan Stein Shiva Award. The late Ms. Shiva’s surname is pronounced “Shee-vah,” but Mr. Lapine pronounced it as if he were referring to the weeklong Jewish mourning process (“Shih-vah”). Whether or not he was doing this on purpose, Mr. Lapine then kept alternating between the correct and incorrect pronunciations of Ms. Shiva’s name, even though he acknowledged–with Ms. Shiva’s widower, Gil Shiva, in the audience–that the crowd would soon be sitting shiva for him if he didn’t get it straight.

Mr. Lapine did get one thing right on the nose.

“Mandy doesn’t do anything by halves,” he told the crowd before giving Mr. Patinkin the award.

Mr. Patinkin did not disappoint.

“James, Jesus Christ!” blurted out Mr. Patinkin as he bounded up on stage in his tasteful black-on-black ensemble. He explained that this was the “first time that I’ve allowed anyone to give me an award” because he didn’t feel “near enough to the dead” to accept one. But, Mr. Patinkin explained, “When you are rehearsing a Broadway show, you are near enough to being dead. So I have chosen to accept this honor.”

Mr. Patinkin then warned the crowd, “If you need to go the bathroom, I’ll be up here for three hours.”

Actually, Mr. Patinkin spoke for 10 minutes (The Transom timed him), although he talked fast, spanned a lot of history and named a lot of names (Peter Weller! Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio!).

But what was remarkable about the speech was that even in this age of ironic detachment, Mr. Patinkin managed to be irony-free for the entire 10 minutes. And when he said, about five minutes in, “So when we all make fun of Sally Field for the Academy Awards speech [in which Ms. Field essentially told the crowd, ‘You like me. You really like me’], I give her a break,” the distinct impression was that Mr. Patinkin was not kidding. Like it or not (after listening to the speech one actor told The Transom, “We’re not all like this”), it’s clear that Mr. Patinkin is a man in love with the theater.

Mr. Patinkin remembered being 13 years old and rehearsing a scene for Carousel in the Chicago Jewish youth center where he had gone to nursery school, and being told what the play was about: “If you love someone, tell them.”

Eventually, Mr. Patinkin arrived at a less joyous occasion. His starring role as a transsexual in the Public’s disastrous 1987 production of David Hare’s The Knife at the Public Theater, which took place during Mr. Papp’s reign there.

“I was a wreck doing The Knife ,” Mr. Patinkin told the crowd. “If you’d seen The Knife , you’d know why,” he said, adding that one scene required him to wear a blue ball gown. “It was a fucking disaster,” spat Mr. Patinkin.

“I didn’t know how to tell Joe something was wrong,” Mr. Patinkin told the audience. He wanted to tell Mr. Papp that “I didn’t care about the placards and awards” that adorned the Public founder’s office. He wanted to tell Mr. Papp that he cared about him. “I sensed that he needed to know that I … liked him,” said Mr. Patinkin (and that is where the Sally Field reference came in). So he went into Mr. Papp’s office. “I started to weep,” he said. “[Joe Papp] grabbed my arm.”

Mr. Patinkin and Mr. Papp bonded. Mr. Patinkin said he sang the mourner’s kaddish in Hebrew in memory of Mr. Papp’s son Tony, who succumbed to AIDS in 1991, just months before Mr. Papp would also die. “Joe said that was beautiful and that he’d like me to do it tomorrow night for Jackie Mason and some people.”

“Joe is with me every moment of my life,” said Mr. Patinkin. “I have a picture of him in my dressing room,” and he brought his speech back to Carousel . “If you love someone, tell them,” he said. “Tell them before the light goes out.”

More recently, Mr. Patinkin said, “George Wolfe came into my life at another moment when I was frightened, and he held my hand,” perhaps a reference to the theater grapevine that, behind the scenes, The Wild Party has been as emotionally and psychologically overwrought as the piece itself.

“I bless you for keeping this, Joe’s dream,” said Mr. Patinkin as he began winding up for one last crescendo of emotion. The train was reaching its terminus.

“The last musical I was in was a piece of dreck!” Mr. Patinkin said. As the words came out, he seemed to reel himself in a bit. “It was a wonderful piece, but without the fucking dress.”

Hot Flash for Hillary!

Menopause was far from Hillary Clinton’s mind when she worked the rope line of the cocktail party at Maxim’s for the Women’s Campaign Fund on March 13.

Actress Robin Strasser changed that.

Ms. Strasser, who recently left the soap opera One Life to Live , where she played the diabolical Dorian Lord, presented the First Lady with six hours and four minutes of instructional videotapes on hot flashes, mood swings and other symptoms of this transitional phase of a woman’s life. Ms. Strasser underwrote the production and also stars in it, visiting everyone from Ivy League doctors to Chinatown herbalists in search of on-camera relief. “You see me having a bone density test,” she told The Transom.

Ms. Strasser told the First Lady that the gift was “unaligned with product identification,” and Mrs. Clinton accepted the tapes without breaking her trademark opaque smile, then promptly handed them off to an aide.

Her mission complete, Ms. Strasser headed downtown by car to one of 13 dinners that were being held to benefit the Women’s Campaign Fund. En route, the discussion turned to women’s passages and whether Mrs. Clinton had made hers. No one could recall the senatorial candidate making any pronouncements on the subject, but Ms. Strasser said the signs of “perimenopause” were obvious. “When Chelsea was about to go to college, she was about to adopt a baby,” the actress recalled. “It’s her hormones talking to her.”

The subject temporarily vanished at the West Village town house of software designer Ray King and his wife, Deneen, both of whom looked closer to the concerns of adolescence than middle age. Hosts and guests at other dinners around town included former Police Commissioner William Bratton and his Court TV personality wife, Rikki Klieman, as well as model Marisa Berenson and Oxygen Media chief executive Geraldine Laybourne, who was said to be the evening’s most desired guest. However, the Kings’ home was the only one that boasted a reflecting pool in the middle of the living room with a retractable roof. (The house is on the market for $8.5 million.) Mrs. King said her daughter used the pool for wading, while her husband used it “more or less to reflect upon.” She added that they are hoping to move to Westchester, where they’ll be able to have horses.

The guests at the King residence included interior decorator Mario Buatta, artist Donald Sultan, actress Sylvia Miles and two women who have been the beneficiaries of the Women’s Campaign Fund’s financial and technical largess: Heidi Behrens-Benedict, a candidate for Congress in Washington and Nancy Farmer, who is running for state treasurer in Missouri. (The fund is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to electing pro-choice women to public office.)

Both women thanked the fund for its support, and Mr. Buatta shared his own Hillary Clinton story with the table. Back in the late 80’s, she served as the lawyer for a company with which he went into the fragrance business. “She wrote a tough contract,” he recalled without bitterness. “I got fired after three years.”

At the end of the evening, Ms. Strasser rose to announce that each of the guests was to receive a complimentary copy of her menopause tape as a memento of the evening. Ms. Miles sighed loudly. “It happened so long ago,” she said.

–Ralph Gardner Jr.

Mandy Patinkin Gets Choked Up at the Public Theater