Get this `Party' started: The guest is here

March 12, 2006|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK | J. WYNN ROUSUCK,SUN THEATER CRITIC

On Saturday, Kathleen Chalfant will be a one-woman party.

That's when the New York actress will perform The Party - Ellen McLaughlin's adaptation of three Virginia Woolf short stories - at the Theatre Project's annual fundraising gala, an event that is itself a party.

Portraying multiple characters - in this case, several partygoers and their hostess - is nothing new for Chalfant. For six years, she played half a dozen roles in Tony Kushner's Angels in America, earning a 1993 Tony Award nomination for her efforts.

The Party, a one-woman show that runs about 40 minutes and consists primarily of interior monologues, is far more modest than Kushner's two-part, seven-hour "Gay Fantasia on National Themes" (his play's subtitle). Nor are there any costume changes. So Chalfant needn't worry about having one character show up in another's shoes, as sometimes happened when Angels required her to change too quickly from a Mormon mother to an Orthodox rabbi.

A project Chalfant instigated, The Party dates back to the first Los Angeles workshops of Angels in America in 1989. "For many years, people had said to me, `You really ought to do something about Virginia Woolf because you look like Virginia Woolf.' I don't really think that is true, but I was flattered," she says from her Greenwich Village home, adding, "I was also a great fan of Virginia Woolf."

By the time Angels came along, she had been carrying three Woolf stories - "The New Dress," "Together and Apart" and "A Summing Up" - around for a couple of years, trying to find a way to create a play out of these precursors to Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway. One day a fellow cast member, actress/playwright McLaughlin (the central Angel in Kushner's play) spotted the stories and asked about them.

"I said, `I need a writer,' " Chalfant recalls. "And Ellen said, `I'm a writer.' " That marked the birth of The Party, a work Chalfant refers to as "a child of Angels in America." In spring 1990, Chalfant, McLaughlin and director David Esbjornson launched The Party with three performances at a literary cabaret at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum.

The Los Angeles Times declared, "It deserves a much longer life." The piece got that two years later at New York's Vineyard Theater, and The New York Times wrote: "There is real drama in the play's depiction of sensitive souls navigating through social terrain that is as treacherous as it is familiar."

Since then, Chalfant has performed The Party at benefits for organizations ranging from a New York center for at-risk youth to the California retirement community where her high school cello teacher lives. Her appearance at the Theatre Project came about at the suggestion of a Baltimore cousin, who is an avid supporter of the Preston Street theater.

Adventurous roles

Although Chalfant has never been to the Theatre Project, producing director Anne Cantler Fulwiler says, "She is such an amazingly fabulous match for us because every role that she has played - particularly the ones that have garnered her the most attention - have all been really, really adventurous choices, and that's what the Theatre Project is about."

One of Chalfant's most adventurous - and high-profile - roles was that of Vivian Bearing, an English professor battling cancer in Margaret Edson's Wit. The role not only required her to appear briefly in the nude, but also to shave her head, a task her husband performed for her.

She wore wigs offstage for about six months, then flipped her wig for the duration when she won the Outer Critics Circle Award in April 1999. "I took it off and then that was it," she says of a move that ended up being an outward show of support for real-life cancer patients. "It wasn't a conscious decision, but that's what the effect of it was, and it allowed me to understand what it means to be immediately visible and identifiable."

The nudity and shaved pate might be trying enough, but Wit was especially challenging for Chalfant because her brother, Alan Palmer, was dying of cancer when she first did the play (at Connecticut's Long Wharf Theatre in 1997). She'd given him the script to read beforehand, and he told her, "If anybody ever asks you to do this play, you'd better do it."

A political and institutional fundraiser from San Francisco, Palmer moved to New York at the end of his life to live with Chalfant and her husband. Wit, she explains, "taught me how to help him a little bit, at least to try to help." By the time the play opened in New York in 1998, however, her brother had died. "I knew then how to play the end of the play," she says.

`A low-rent Eloise'

Chalfant was born in San Francisco and raised primarily in Oakland, Calif., where her parents ran a boarding house. She grew up, she says, "like a low-rent Eloise. There were 50 tenants, and we served breakfast and dinner six days a week, and we fed people something on Sunday. ... My first jobs were waiting on tables in the dining room."

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