|"'Crimes of the Heart' surpasses expectations...
Peter MacNicol makes a Broadway debut that should be hailed..."
~Alvin Klein, WNYC Radio
|It Was a Victory Party for 'Crimes of the Heart'
by John Corry, The New York Times, Nov. 6, 1981
|Opening-night parties for hits are all alike; opening-night parties for turkeys are dismal each in their own
way. "Crimes of the Heart," which opened Wednesday night at the John Golden Theater, is a hit.
Therefore, at the party for "Crimes of the Heart" on Wednesday night, its myriad producers smiled; one
of the stars called her mother; the director said he couldn't have done it without the cast, and people
kept talking to the author while she tried to eat dinner. This is the way it was supposed to be
"Crimes of the Heart" is also an ensemble play, never dominated by one actor or another, but a whole
made up of separate performances. Consider, for example, Mia Dillon, whose character, Babe, has just
been sprung from jail for shooting her husband. "I didn't like his looks. I didn't like his stinking looks,"
Babe says, forthrightly explaining why she pulled the trigger. The curious thing is that "Crimes of the
Heart" is a comedy.
"The most difficult thing was finding my character," Miss Dillon said. "I tend to work very slowly. I make
little discoveries. And there's always something more to be discovered. My character evolves as I get to
know her better."
At the party at Sardi's, Miss Dillon was drinking plain hot water with lemon. Nothing else. She had not
read the reviews yet, but she had heard about them. She said she would borrow someone's copies and
then call her parents in St. David's, Pa., and read them aloud. Miss Dillon has frequently worked Off
Broadway, but on Broadway she had been best known for the role of Mary Tate, the Yellow Peril, in "Da."
"Da," she pointed out, had 12 productions before it reached Broadway. "Crimes of the Heart," which is
by Beth Henley, was done first at the Actors Theater in Louisville, Ky., and then at the Manhattan
Theater Club. Last spring it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
"Maybe the hardest thing I had to do on stage was laugh," Miss Dillon continued. She was referring to a
scene in which she must be raucous. "Melvin Berhardt," the director, "changed the staging from the way
we did it at the Manhattan Theater Club, and we had quite a few rehearsals trying to get it right.
"I have to go through a lot of emotions in my head. First, there's horror because grandfather is in a
coma, but then we have to laugh. And if I don't really laugh, not faking it, the scene doesn't work. It's
Miss Dillon looked pensive. She said one great help was that everyone in the cast got along. As a rule,
this is also what makes all hits alike. In turkeys there is acrimony.
"We really do love each other," Miss Dillon said. "Mary Beth Hurt and Lizbeth Mackay" -- they play Babe's
sisters -- "and I have a very special relationship. None of us had worked together before. But we really
do all love each other."
Meanwhile, there was Peter MacNicol. In "Crimes of the Heart" he plays the young lawyer who
represents Babe. Mr. MacNicol was at the party, but only briefly. Nothing about Mr. MacNicol suggests he
is a party type, but more important, as he courteously explained, he had to leave to go in search of
Chapstick. His lips hurt.
"I spent two years at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis," he said yesterday, " and then some New York
types saw me there as Benvolio in 'Romeo and Juliet.' They sent me some enticing letters -- about why
didn't I come to New York? -- and since it was well below zero that winter in Minneapolis, it didn't take
much to get me to leave."
Mr. MacNicol is a serious actor. He said there was an even more pressing reason for him to leave.
"The Guthrie Theater is a beast," he said warmly. "It has 1,300 seats, and I couldn't act there. I always
felt I was acting too small. I'd always have to fight to get the gumption to act bigger. There's a weird
trick to it. You don't want to overwhelm the first six rows. You don't want to starve the back. I could
never get it. So, at the final cast party of the season I was already halfway across Indiana on my way to
That was less than two years ago, in January 1980. Mr. MacNicol said that he then auditioned furiously in
New York, trying out for almost everything. ("I got very silly. I used to drive myself nuts.") What is
extraordinary, however, is that he was cast in almost no time at all in the movie "Dragonslayer." ("One of
those special effects things; I didn't do much acting.")
Role in "Sophie's Choice'
The movie, which opened here during the summer, was shot in Britain in seven months. Three days after
the shooting stopped, Mr. MacNicol was back in New York, auditioning at the Manhattan Theater Club for
"Crimes of the Heart." Since then he has been cast for the enormously sought-after role of Stingo in the
movie version of "Sophie's Choice." He says he was lucky.
"Maybe the stage is harder than the movies -- I don't know," Mr. MacNicol said thoughtfully, discussing
how to keep a performance fresh. "The hardest thing I do on stage is to self-induce amnesia. I want to
go on every night and say, 'I've never sat in this chair. I've never been in this room.' Sometimes in
'Crimes of the Heart' I'll do something different in the blocking, or I'll change something.
"In the scene where I take a business card out of my pocket, I'll pull it out of my breast pocket, or
maybe I'll take it out of a side pocket. Maybe I'll pull out a dollar bill along with the business card. One
night I had a cork in my pocket. The important thing on stage is to stay fresh."
Mr. MacNicol, who is loose and pleasant, said that the other actors liked it when he did this. He said they
had told him that it kept them fresh, too. Hits are happy shows, and happy shows are all alike.