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Broadway veteran sees its lights shining bright

With all the fretting about the lamentable state of new plays on Broadway, you'd think that Rosemary Harris, long one of its brightest stars, would echo these sentiments.

After all, "Wrong Mountain," one of only two new plays being produced on New York's so-called "street of dreams," closed last weekend, and the prospects for the rest of Broadway's spring season could be termed at best intriguing - including a new Elaine May play ("Taller Than a Dwarf" with Matthew Broderick and Parker Posey) - but slight.

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Refreshingly, the way Ms. Harris, a Tony Award-winning actress, sees it, there's still plenty to be grateful for - despite the drain of playwriting talent to TV and movies.

Celebrating her 48th year on Broadway, Harris is costarring with Lauren Bacall in the generally well-received revival of Noel Coward's "Waiting in the Wings," which, ironically in the context of her remarks, is about survival. In the play, a score of older English actresses are living in a retirement home, reliving their earlier stage triumphs, and enjoying each other's companionship.

Says Harris, the wife of novelist and screenwriter John Ehle and the mother of actress Jennifer Ehle, "I think the lovely thing about ["Waiting in the Wings"] is that these are such gallant ladies. None of them has given up...."

Adding to this kind of play-within-a-play-within-a-play aura, my interview with Harris is in her dressing room after a Wednesday matinee performance, and several of her colleagues ask if they can bring her dinner. "No, dear, thank you very much. I have mine in the fridge," she tells one.

Harris then switches into interview mode and comments on the state of Broadway. "It is disappointing that so few new plays come to Broadway, and it was fun in the old days when there were 10 to 15 straight plays on at a time," she concedes. "But there are more revivals today, which is filling some of the void of new plays. I remember when 'revival' was rather a dirty word.... People didn't want to go and see revivals. "

Harris says she's seen many changes since her first trip to Broadway in 1952. Back then, there were more melodramas. But today, Broadway is "so amazing - and exciting!"

Even the off-Broadway phenomena is wonderful, she says.

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"When I first came to Broadway, it was just beginning. I remember when 'The Iceman Cometh' was first done off-Broadway in the 1950s. It was a huge hit but was one of comparatively few off-Broadway plays.

"Now, however, when you include off-Broadway and off-off Broadway, you can go to a different new show every night of the year in New York!"

Later, she shows me an article about her daughter, Jennifer, recently published in the London Sunday Times. She is coming to Broadway this spring in the eagerly awaited revival of Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing." Did Harris discourage her from a career in theater?

"No, I didn't," she says. "She just came to me one day when she was 14 and said, 'I want to do it.' I said 'Why?' And she said, 'Why wouldn't I? You have so much fun!' "

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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