The Legendary Zoe Caldwell on Her New One-Woman Show, ‘Elective Affinities’

Ah, here’s the rub: Super-secret Upper East Side venue accommodates just 30 people per night!

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

If you’re a visitor to New York, here’s a little trick to play on your hotel concierge: Slip him or her a nice tip, say $100, and let it be known that you’d be so eternally grateful for a pair of tickets to Elective Affinities, the new one-woman show starring Zoe Caldwell.

It’s not going to happen.

You’ll have no better luck if you’re a New Yorker, but the experience will be less fun, because the abject failure will be yours alone.

Elective Affinities, you see, is a very tough ticket, probably the toughest in town. Following a few preview nights, it opens December 2 and will run a mere 12 performances, with an audience of just 30 individuals for each show—which means that over its entire run, the production will play only to about as many people as fit into a small Broadway theater on a single night. The venue is a gracefully appointed Fifth Avenue town house on the Upper East Side. Its precise location is being kept secret, revealed only to the lucky holders of those magic little tickets by email, approximately 48 hours before curtain. (Not that we’re saying there’s a curtain.)

The reason for this bit of subterfuge has nothing to do with art. That would be precious, you see, and Ms. Caldwell, who is 78 and has been a professional actress since the age of 9, detests such pretensions. The reason is practical. Should the address be widely disseminated, a desperate mob might descend on the place, and things could become unpleasant.

Human unpleasantness—the cruelties we inflict on one another, in the name of protecting those we love, or defending our way of life, or simply because we can—is the subject of David Adjmi’s play, an extended monologue in which Alice Hauptmann, a very rich, very civilized old lady, treats a few visitors to tea, lady fingers, and some very uncivilized political views on human rights, genocide and the torture of prisoners.

When she was first approached about the role, Ms. Caldwell turned it down flat. “A one-woman show? Oh no, no, no, no,” she recalled thinking. Dressed in a black long-sleeved scoop-neck top and jazz pants, her hair cut short and fashionably mussed, she was sitting in a beige arm chair in the Theater District pied à terre she has kept in the city for some 40 years. “A one-woman show? I couldn’t do that. I did it once with Lillianthe 1986 play based on the life of playwright Lillian Hellman—“who was a very difficult woman to have in your bloodstream. But my son Charlie said, ‘You might at least read it before you dismiss it.’ And so I did.”

Ms. Caldwell was floored by the play, she said. But there was a problem. “I rang and I said, ‘It’s terrific, and I’d love to do it but of course I can’t, because I can’t remember my lines anymore. But I find what you’re doing thrilling, and I’ll be there in the audience.’” Soho Rep artistic director Sarah Benson, who directed the show, suggested they place written prompts around the room. “No, no, no, I couldn’t act doing that,” Ms. Caldwell said. What about an ear piece? “I couldn’t possibly—no, no, no,” she responded. A few days later, Ms. Benson came back to her again and asked if she’d simply read it. “And I said, well yes, if you would like me to.”

“I just kept stalking her,” Ms. Benson told The Observer. “I’d seen her in Master Class when I was a teenager, and I was like, ‘Who is this amazing woman?’ I’ve had a theater crush on her for years.”

So here she is. “Oh dear, oh dear, I am very nervous,” Ms. Caldwell said, her accent bearing strong traces of her native Australia. “I’m always nervous, but more so now because I’m older and more likely to be a little frail. I’m right to be nervous!”

Still, Ms. Benson’s persistence is not hard to understand. Alice Hauptmann—by turns girlish, gracious and monstrously self-centered—seems a classic Zoe Caldwell role. The recipient of four Tony Awards, Ms. Caldwell specializes in complicated women: Lady Macbeth. Cleopatra. Miss Jean Brodie. Lillian Hellman. Maria Callas. Mary Tyrone. Medea.

Her approach to each role is deeply experiential. She began swilling vodka and took up smoking to play Lillian Hellman, walked around Manhattan with an awkward stoop to help her relate to the hunchbacked nun in The Devils, and practically destroyed her feet wearing the precise heels Callas favored.

She has changed her weight drastically, depending on the role. “That’s why I’m such a mess right now,” she said, though she didn’t seem it. “When I played Emma Hamilton in London, I was 180 pounds. That was very big. But then as Medea, I thought, I can’t be going through all these problems fat and healthy!”

Ms. Caldwell has a very specific pre-performance ritual, she said. “I arrive at the theater three hours before curtain, and I take everything off of myself. And then I put everything of them on.” She laughed. “It’s a bit creepy.”

She looked down at her nails, Alice’s nails, which had been painted a flaming red. “The last time I had nail polish on was when I was 16,” she recalled.

Ms. Caldwell has also had an influence on the production, Ms. Benson said. “Everything from what kind of chocolate she would have to what art books would be on the coffee table—Zoe has really informed that.”

Becoming these characters can wreak havoc on one’s relationships, Ms. Caldwell noted. “I mean, it’s not good for husbands and boys and dogs and stuff.” Her husband, Robert Whitehead, the legendary Broadway producer who staged signature works by Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter and Tennessee Williams, among many others, died in 2002. When he produced Medea on Broadway in 1983, with Ms. Caldwell starring, they had two young sons at home—“two little boys whom I simply adored…before I set off each night to kill them,” she said with a devilish smile.

The Legendary Zoe Caldwell on Her New One-Woman Show, ‘Elective Affinities’