The late Jessica Tandy – the original Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire and an Oscar winner for Driving Miss Daisy – explained to me years ago in an interview the difference between acting in rehearsal and acting for a paying audience. She and her husband, Hume Cronyn, were starring on Broadway in a production of The Gin Game, directed by Mike Nichols. In rehearsal, Cronyn had always drawn a chuckle from Nichols when he asked Tandy to pass him the butter. At the first preview, Tandy told me (she told slightly different versions of the story to others; a similar tale has been attributed to the Lunts), the line was met with silence. That night, Cronyn asked his wife why the line had fallen flat.
“In rehearsal,” she explained, “you asked for the butter. With an audience, you asked for the laugh.”
This anecdote, of course, has partly to do with the way an actor reads a line, but it also has to do with what happens when an actor moves from rehearsal to performance. How a moment lands can differ radically in front of an audience.
At the post-first-preview dinner for The Royale cast and creatives this week, at P.J. Clarke’s restaurant, I must admit that no actor with whom I chatted seemed to have had a “pass the butter” moment. Relieved finally to have had some real-world feedback, they were too busy asking their colleagues to pass the salt and pepper. After a show, actors are almost always hungry, and PJ Clarke’s they tucked into fish and chicken and salad and the restaurant’s signature creamed spinach, a dish that has plenty of butter, passed and otherwise.
The post-first-preview meal did not feature the main food mentioned in The Royale: fritters. (Note to LCT’s opening-night menu planners: please remedy this.) It did, however, include the possibility of ordering the play’s preferred beverage: bourbon. Among the revelers who took advantage: Adam Siegel, LCT’s Managing Director, and Marco Ramirez, the author of The Royale. A bar mentioned in the play serves 26 kinds of bourbon. I didn’t ask Ramirez if the number 26 has special significance.
I will make sure to ask him at the opening.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.