For Christine Pedi, the Show Goes On, With New Challenges

Emerging from the pandemic, Christine Pedi discovered her vision had dimmed. But it hasn't stopped her from taking the stage Off Broadway in 'The Rewards of Being Frank.'

Tora Nogami Alexander as Cecily, Christine Pedi as Lady Bracknell, and Kelly Mengelkoch as Gwendolyn in ‘The Rewards of Being Frank.’ Mikki Schaffner

Christine Pedi has always said she had a good ear—i.e., an uncanny ability to catch the nuances and inflections of famous females. She honed her skill as an impressionist in the parody revue Forbidden Broadway. Angela, Bernadette and Carol are particular specialties, and, when she tours her Great Dames cabaret act, she adds LuPone, Minnelli and Stritch to the mix.

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It is her eyes that have become Pedi’s problem. Emerging from the pandemic, she discovered her vision had dimmed. “I have a degenerative condition that affects vision in both eyes in different ways,” she explains, “but I’m still able to function on stage quite well. 

“I tell people, ‘I’m not blind, I’m half-blind,’” she continues. “When I saw that my eye-sight was going, I made the decision not to do musical theater. Big musicals have so many musical parts for actors and, literally, so many moving parts, it would be easy for me to make a misstep. I don’t have the peripheral vision to handle the whole cast that comes with musicals. 

“When I told people I couldn’t do musicals, I started adding, ‘But I could do drawing-room comedies. Then, just as a joke, I added to that, ‘I could do Lady Bracknell in drawing-room comedies.’ With most of those kinds of roles—you walk on, you sit down, you have tea, and you walk off. I have the vision to do that.

Then, under a general heading of Be Careful What You Wish For, Pedi found herself confronted with  . . . Lady Bracknell, she of Abandoned Handbag fame in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Not the original Lady Bracknell, exactly, but one seven years later—in 1902.

From left: Jeremy Dubin, Kelly Mengelkoch, James Evans, Tora Nogami Alexander, Christine Pedi, and Mobolaji Ademide Akintilo in ‘The Rewards of Being Frank.’ Mikki Schaffner

Alice Scovell’s The Rewards of Being Frank — currently at A.R.T./New York Mezzanine Theatre through March 26 — liberates five Wilde characters preserved in amber since 1895. In this new sequel, Gwendolen has married Ernest John, and Cecily has married Algernon. The only one left unwed now is the austere dowager who approved both unions: Lady Bracknell. Added to the comical chaos is a new character, Frank, who catches the discerning eye of Lady B.

Pedi had already put in a lifetime of research on Lady Bracknell. “Probably the best was Maggie Smith in London,” she says. Also great, and also in London, was David Suchet—“not the prettiest woman in the world, but a formidable Lady Bracknell.” And Brian Bedford “was lovely, bringing that cute little nose and twinkly eyes to Broadway.”

Pedi estimates she’s seen at least four or five Bracknells in London and listened to many more. “I heard a BBC recording where Judi Dench played Lady Bracknell. When she said ‘handbag,’ her take was very different than anyone else’s. She does it as if she can barely breathe—the word will not issue forth because the memory is so horrible. She did it on radio, too, so she was able to give it that low-key delivery that would still have impact. On the stage, it wouldn’t land the same way.”

Other than going to Cincinnati to rehearse The Rewards of Being Frank and try the part on during a three-and-a-half week run, Pedi is not sure exactly how she and Lady Bracknell met up. “I was in London doing my cabaret act when I got this email audition. I saw the name of the play and scrolled down, and the character that was highlighted was Lady Bracknell—what I’ve been saying to people for months. I sent in a video audition, and, within two days, I had the role.

“We started rehearsals in January in Cincinnati. There were lots of cuts and edits, trimming it down and tightening it up till we got it on its feet. When we opened in Cincinnati, it was pretty much the same play you see now, with some ever-so-slight changes made before New York.”

Safeguards for Pedi were in place before Performance One. “I had a walk-through at both theaters and got to explain where I would need big pieces of white tape, like a runway that led me off, and on, stage. Backstage is pitch-black, but we have rope lights. Every theater that you play has different challenges, and these two venues were incredibly accommodating. This company is very supportive of me. It’s their mission to become more inclusive and accessible in all their productions, and I am certainly proof of that. It’s just a joy to work with these people.” 

Further fortifying Pedi for the challenges of today is her comedic training. She did more performances—and more editions—of Forbidden Broadway than any other cast member. 

“It was terrific training, all right,” she allows. “I learned to move quickly because I had the luxury of doing it for 15 years. After a couple of years, I was able to learn impressions quicker and get something—if not great, then at least definitely serviceable—to come to the surface.” 

Her lord and master, Gerard Alessandrini, the creator and director of all 20-plus editions of Forbidden Broadway, seconds that: “She’s notable not just for her ability to caricature actresses but also to conjure them. She’s more than a mimic. She’s zeroing in on what makes them tick.”

For vocal imitations, Pedi is New York’s go-to person. “You’d think I’d get cartoon work–so far, nothing,” she grumbles. “My agents keep submitting me and get good feedback. Even I make myself laugh doing auditions. I think I’m funny. A big Disney movie, that’s what I’m ready for.”

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For Christine Pedi, the Show Goes On, With New Challenges