"An opening night is an occasion for relief, not gaiety," Noel Coward once wrote, "unless you're very very lucky, in which case champagne is allowed to flow." At the official debut of In the Next Room, last Thursday, there was luck in the air. Spirits, of all kind, were flowing, though the tendency was not toward the bubbly but toward the Dewar's: only fitting, since the cast and crew of Sarah Ruhl's play are Do-ers.
Held at the Milennium hotel, just across 45th street from the imposing Beaux-Arts façade of the production's theater, the Lyceum, the party provided the usual frock shock -- seeing the actors transformed from costumes to civvies, which is particularly startling when the play is done in period gear. The event also carried a whiff of Coward's relief: "We made it!" Wendy Rich Stetson, who plays Annie, told me.
Squeezing commentary out of the performers, however, was not my prime function at the opening, since I have been lucky enough to speak with them from the first day of rehearsals. Instead, I harvested responses from the party guests, a group that included writers (A. R. Gurney, Jr., John Weidman, Alfred Uhry), actors (Blair Brown, Piper Laurie), and other luminaries too numerous to detail.
Oscar winner Frances McDormand, told me: "I always love it when a story is not like anything else you've ever seen, and this play definitely qualifies in that department. That's great." Jill Clayburgh, who appeared in Ruhl's The Clean House, at LCT, added, "No man could write a play like the one we saw tonight. Watching it made me grateful once again that we have someone like Sarah working in the theater."
Mary-Louise Parker, who did Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone off-Broadway, lavished praise on the playwright's verbal gifts. "Sarah writes dialogue that is so real and yet so full of imagination. It's hard to find that as an actor. Writers tend to give you something that's punishing, or that you can't believe anyone would say in real life."
Musician Adam Duritz, of Counting Crows, was also in attendance. With his semi-dreaded hair, Duritz at a party is hard to miss: "I'm Jewish, but impersonate African-Jamaican," he has said in the past. On this occasion, though, he was in slightly more serious spirits. "I'm a big history buff," he said, "the kind of guy who watches all the big Ken Burns' specials on PBS. Tonight's play was interesting, because it made me imagine what life must have been like for people in upstate New York in the 19th century. Lively!"
Among the party's guests, I'll leave the last word to actor Marian Seldes. "I think what we saw tonight was a true work of art," she said. "I've had a wonderful time. By the way, where's the exit in this place?"
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.