Gene Saks says hello to 'Goodbye Girl'

December 17, 1992|By Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK -- Gene Saks has an hour for lunch. That's it. That's all the schedule allows when you're in rehearsals for a big-time musical comedy and opening night in Chicago is less than a month away.

A trim, silver-haired man, he breezes into the Metropolis Cafe here and orders -- Diet Coke, black bean soup and chicken salad -- with scarcely a glance at the menu. He knows it by heart. He's been a regular at this airy, Union Square restaurant since Nov. 9, when he began directing rehearsals for Neil Simon's "The Goodbye Girl" in a studio a block away.

Minutes after Mr. Saks arrives, the show's stars, Bernadette Peters and Martin Short, saunter by on the way to a table of their own.

Ms. Peters, a Broadway veteran, plays the part of Paula McFadden, a down-on-her-luck single mother and fading former chorus girl, who finds herself sharing a Manhattan apartment with Elliott Garfein, a cocky but compassionate young actor from Chicago, played by Mr. Short, best known as a comic on "Saturday Night Live" and "SCTV Network 90," in his first Broadway role.

Like an indulgent father, Mr. Saks, 71, looks after them fondly. He last worked with Ms. Peters, he recalls, when she was about 16 and already "superbly talented." The play, called "A Mother's Kisses," never made it to Broadway and, anyway, her part was cut out, he adds with a grin.

This time, it's different. "Bernadette finally got a leading role with a part to play where she will sing songs, dance numbers and act," he says firmly. "She won't be playing second fiddle to Mandy Patinkin in 'Sundays in the Park With George,' and it won't be playing the old witch in 'Into the Woods.' Now you'll see her as a character in a story that is really her.

"Martin is going to be a big surprise," he says, pronouncing Mr. Short "one of the most superior talents I've ever worked with." Even as a singer, he notes, Mr. Short is doing "rather well."

Despite a 30-year collaboration or more with Mr. Simon on a dozen projects, "The Goodbye Girl" is fresh territory for Mr. Saks.

Although he has directed what amounts to a cavalcade of Mr. Simon's greatest hits on stage and screen -- including "Barefoot in the Park," "The Odd Couple," "California Suite," "Last of the Red Hot Lovers," the trilogy "Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Biloxi Blues" and "Broadway Bound," last year's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning "Lost in Yonkers" and this year's "Jake's Women" -- he did not direct the 1977 film version of "The Goodbye Girl" starring Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss.

"He didn't ask me," says Mr. Saks equably, between spoonfuls of black bean soup. "In 1977, I guess I was busy."

In Mr. Saks' case, "busy" amounts to a graceful, rather than coy, understatement of the fact that he had three shows running on Broadway in 1977: "Same Time Next Year," "California Suite" and "I Love My Wife," for which he won the first of his three Tony Awards. He repeated the feat again in 1985 with a new female production of "The Odd Couple," "Brighton Beach Memoirs," which bagged him his second Tony Award, and "Biloxi Blues," which that year earned him his third.

"The Goodbye Girl" represents a unique challenge. It is the first time Mr. Simon has taken a script from the screen and transformed it into a musical for the stage.

Mr. Saks says he saw the film at the time of its release, but deliberately has not seen it again in preparation for the musical. "We didn't want to copy the film," he says, adding that, in any event, the problems posed by the stage are different.

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