Drama Dispatch: July 19, 2004: 'On Broadway Men Still Wear Hats'; 'Much Ado About Nothing' (Central Park); 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (Williamstown)

While there are hundreds of theatre books on actors, directors, playwrights, producers, and even designers, there are hardly any on the less flashy stage-related occupations of dressers, haberdashers, truckers, librarians, archivists, and restaurateurs. That is until Robert Simonson's "On Broadway Men Still Wear Hats" (Smith and Kraus). This collection of portraits goes way, way behind the scenes to present a total picture of the business side of theatre. Subtitled "Unusual Lives Led on the Edges of Broadway," Simonson's tome profiles an assortment of individuals whose passion for the stage does not necessarily place them in the spotlight, but close enough for satisfaction.

Each of the subjects plays a vital role in the life of New York theatre. Several are in service industries such as suppliers of hats, fabrics, champagne glasses, and matches. There are a slew of theatre journalists including the infamously vitriolic Michael Riedel of the New York Post, the more jovial Harry Haun and Louis Botto of Playbill, and the eccentric photographer Aubrey Reuben. There's Nathan Lane's dresser and a legendary agent. The only performers included are unusual choices as well: Craig Smith and Elise Stone, company members of Jean Cocteau Repertory, who have rarely appeared elsewhere than with this small Off-Broadway company. Then there are the occupations that you never dreamt even existed, such as the man who supplies odd props and the pair of brothers who rent theatrical photographs.

The collection is a fast and fun read. Some of the pieces are more detailed than others. The Riedel portrait is full of juicy backstage dish. The sections on Botto and agent Robert Lantz have more than their share of spicy showbiz anecdotes and quips. (Botto relates that when he asked Talullah Bankhead for scotch and water during an interview, she replied, "The scotch is on the table, the water's in the john.") The piece on Kenneth Brown, Nathan Lane's dresser, is particularly fascinating for its insight into the controlled chaos that occurs in the wings during a big musical. A few of the segments come across as perfunctory reportage (such as the chapters on Rozanne Seelen, the owner of the Drama Book Shop, and Norma Molitch Deull, president and owner of Clark Transfer, the trucking concern which ships scenery). But overall, love of the theatre is zestfully conveyed in both the writing and the subjects. The spirit conveyed is that of a disappearing Broadway run by family businesses and personal connections. With enormous corporations and $100 tickets rapidly becoming the order of the day, the quirky entrepreneurs and plucky enthusiasts of Simonson's book are decreasing in number.

The joy of stagecraft evident in Simonson's people is also apparent in two summer Shakespeare productions: "Much Ado About Nothing" at Central Park's Delacorte Theater and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. More often than not, these two perennial Bard comedies are trotted out as sure-fire audience pleasers and given rather run-of-the-mill stagings. I have seen these two classics a total of 20 times and 16 of the productions were forgettable. Not so here. Both productions are performed with a sheer elation and love of just being in the theatre.

David Esbjornson sets "Much Ado," the battle of wits between the eloquent Beatrice and Benedick, in 1920s Messina, Italy. There are a few brief references to the Futurist movement of that era, but Esbjornson wisely sticks to the conflicts between marriage and single life. Kristen Johnston draws the biggest laughs when she deadpans her dry replies to Benedick's thrusts. Both she and Jimmy Smits masterfully handle the transition from confirmed sparring partners to besotted lovers. Sam Waterston, who starred as Benedick in the park and on Broadway 30 years ago, makes a searing impression as the paternal figure Don Leonato. His impassioned response to accusations that his daughter may not be a virgin almost tips the balance of the play, causing me to think it should have been called "Much Ado About Leonato." His real-life daughter Elisabeth Waterston plays his stage daughter with a touch too much stridency. Brian Murray makes for a delightfully foolish Dogberry.

The Williamstown Theatre Festival is celebrating its fiftieth season and is expanding its home, the Adams Memorial Theatre on the campus of Williams College. For the current production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," director Nicholas Martin uses a mock-up of the construction site for the forest and the theatre itself for the court of Athens (the simple and suggestive sets are by Alexander Dodge). Martin employs fresh and inventive tricks such as employing three actors identically costumed as Puck so that it appears this magical trickster (spritefully played by Christopher Fitzgerald) has supernatural speed.

Martin also finds new ways to enliven the rude mechanicals' clumsy dramatics and the dizzying mix-ups of the enchanted lovers. The cast has numerous enrapturing performances, including a delightfully nasty Hermia (Jessica Stone) and a guileless Bottom (Jeremy Shamos). Comedienne Andrea Martin is a Chaplin-like riot in the miniscule role of Robin Starveling, eliciting guffaws by uttering one word or making one gesture. The elegant modern-dress costumes are by Michael Krass. A merry "Midsummer" to go with a marvelous "Much Ado."