Like their celebrated production of "The Gin Game," a conversation with American theatre greats Julie Harris and Charles Nelson Reilly is both rip-roaringly funny and deeply enlightening. He may be outspoken and boisterous, she refined and soft-spoken, but they're identical in their love and respect for one another.
No matter what direction their careers take them in, Harris and Reilly always find their way back to each other. Their personal and professional lives have been intertwined for more than 30 years, since they co-starred in the Broadway musical "Skyscraper." "The Gin Game" marks their 11th play together. In most of their collaborations, Reilly directs Harris, who this time is working opposite Charles Durning in D.L. Coburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning two-hander about a couple of castoffs who meet at a seedy, low-rent retirement home. Harris and Reilly received Tony nods for their work last year and, with Durning, have taken "The Gin Game" on the road. It runs through Dec. 6 at the Wilshire Theatre.
Reilly and Harris have worked together on "The Belle of Amherst," her renowned one-woman show about Emily Dickinson, "Death of a Salesman," and numerous world premieres. Harris, who previously worked with Durning in the L.A. production of "On Golden Pond," has won more Tony Awards‹five‹than any other actor. Since making her Broadway debut in 1945, she's starred in more than 30 plays in New York, including "The Member of the Wedding," "I Am a Camera," "Lucifer's Child," and "The Glass Menagerie"; been nominated for an Oscar for "Member of the Wedding"; worked opposite James Dean in "East of Eden"; won two Emmys, and even tackled a TV series with a stint on "Knots Landing."
A respected acting teacher, Reilly has his own school, the Faculty, in North Hollywood. He won a Tony for the original production of "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" and received another nomination for "Hello, Dolly!" His diverse directing resum includes the Broadway productions of Larry Shue's comedy "The Nerd" and "Paul Robeson" with James Earl Jones, as well as numerous national tours, and operas. Arguably his most memorable TV "role" was as a regular panelist on the game show "Match Game." He has appeared in the recurring role of Jos Chung on "The X-Files."
Recently, these two stage veterans got together for a conference call‹he was home in L.A., she on tour in Cleveland‹to discuss working together and why an actor's work on a role is never done.
Charles Nelson Reilly: I love that in a rehearsal, we'll come up with some piece of business that would really be funny, and even if it doesn't work at first, you'll go through the rest of the day saying, "How could we do that? That's a good idea," and trying to work it out.
Julie Harris: The world is ever changing and full of so many things that I love the idea of trying different things. I just think that's very exciting.
Reilly: You never say no to anything. "An actor should be like a sponge," you always say. But then you edit it and take out what you don't want.
Harris: It's little things that make the difference. For instance, we have moths in the play. Unfortunately, the touring community only has two moths, but we had three on Broadway.
Reilly: Ah, my moths. That's because of the scene in Member of the Wedding when you screamed at the moths that were flying around the porch light and said something like, "What are you doing here? You have wings." And I never forgot that, and that's why we got to have the moths.
Harris: You know what? I passed a tree today that was full of old colored balloons and I said to myself, We've got to have more balloons onstage.
Reilly: Yeah... The ones we have are probably not so good in the larger spaces. They're kind of small.
Harris: I know...
Reilly: Oh. OK. That's a good idea. See, I'm one of those directors who's so stupid. I learned from you about detail. You're even concerned about how the heels on your shoes are‹from the bottom to the top. It's just amazing to me the detail you can keep finding in a play, you know?
Harris: One of your brilliant ideas in The Gin Game, for me, is when I say, "I have two grandsons. One is 12 and one is almost 16. Well, he's almost a man." It doesn't say anything in the script as far as stage directions, but you said, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if you had a picture?" And grandparents always do have pictures of their children and their grandchildren. So you had me take a picture out of the two boys to show to Charles [Durning] and then when I put it away, you said, "Now kiss it, kiss the picture." And I wouldn't have thought of that.
Reilly: Isn't that funny? I've had a lawnmower on the stage since we started the tour, but we finally just got a review that said the lawnmower was good. I was so proud. I love to deal with the accessories, like the air conditioner or magazine racks or whatever.
Harris: It's the accessories that we add that make the life onstage real. You know here in Cleveland, we're playing in a very big theatre and my first costume is a housecoat and I have my head wrapped up in a bandanna. The bandanna I had was sort of plain-looking and I thought, Oh, this theatre is so big, I should have something brighter on my head. So I said to our costume lady, Cynthia Martin, "I'd like a shower cap or something." Cynthia brought up a blue scarf‹silky‹and it just made the difference. One of the critics even remarked about the blue scarf on my head.
Reilly: Buy it from her‹that's good.
Harris: These are the things you keep adding to a good play, you know. You never finish with it.
Reilly: As my teacher Uta Hagen said, "A play is bottomless." Sometimes my pupils don't investigate their props. I tell them, If Ms. Harris has to wear glasses for an audition, she will go out and try to find the right pair. And if she's playing the part for six months, say, she might see a handkerchief at a shop at one point and she'll say, That's a better handkerchief than the one we're using. She keeps adding and improving the image of the character, by the smallest detail.
Reilly: You always play poetesses, queens, and all these revered people, so it's wonderful when you can be really funny, and you're really funny in this. Your body is funny. I don't know what an "actor's body language" means, but you are a very funny person when you have to be. And you love each other, too, that's very important‹you and Charles.
Harris: It would be hard to do this play if you didn't like the person you were doing it with.
Reilly: We had a four and a half weeks of rehearsal period for Gin Game and it was in a gorgeous facility, an abandoned bank right in the middle of Rockefeller Center. And when you do a play with Ms. Harris, if it's 10 a.m., she's where she's supposed to be‹ready to rehearse with her props and any costume pieces that she can simulate. So at first, we were gonna take a little break after the first five hours for a bit to eat, but it got to the point that the lunch period went up to two hours, because Charles and I tell an immense amount of stories and Charles has songs, right, Julie?
Reilly: He plays the table like a piano, goes into all these songs, and I tell stories, and we would sit there for a long time, and Ms. Harris every once in a while would say, "Couldn't we start?" Then we would rehearse a scene. We would be very good. We would rehearse one scene. Then we'd say, "No, we can't start the next one, because we have to order lunch." When you're in the Rockefeller Center, the choices for lunch are amazing. Chinese one day and chicken pot-pie the next. And then we'd start again. Finally, one day near the opening, Ms. Harris said, "There'll be no more lunches." It was like Joan Crawford saying, "No more wire hangers." We didn't even recognize her‹she was very serious. But the point is we did stop the lunches for one day...
Harris: One day.
Reilly: Of course, the next day we were right back with our famous lunches, but what's important is that the way these two artists do the play is an extension of what that rehearsal joy was, what I feel with you and Charles.
Harris: Yes, there was a lot of freedom for us.
Reilly: It was like every day was a party. BSW/D-L