Stockard Channing: Life in renewal

By Jerry Tallmer

The talented actress kicks up her heels in a revisit to a Broadway anomaly

As a thousand theatergoers came pouring out of Broadway’s Studio 54 at the end of a Saturday matinee of “Pal Joey” a couple of weeks ago, one homebound customer — a woman of manifest means and breeding — said it all. “Wonderful!” she exclaimed to the world at large. “What an intelligent performance!”

A few minutes later the actress who had given that stunningly intelligent performance, and would give it again that night and thereafter, sat down in the empty theater to talk with the press — this press — about some of her life and times

Her name was, and is, Stockard Channing. She wore a tan leather jacket, a dark gray skirt, dark-red leather boots, and black-rimmed glasses that brought out the great cheekbones and laughing eyes of a face like an open flower for all its no-nonsense gravity.

The last time she and the press — this press — had met had been in 1985, when she and Jim Dale and playwright Peter Nichols had burst my heart with Nichols’s “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg,” both off and on Broadway.

That had been a drama about a youngish British couple, Sheila and Bri, who make jokes and do other caustic play-acting things to make bearable the omnipresence of their drooling, inert spastic child.

“Pal Joey” is quite another cup of tea. It’s the no-holds-barred portrait of a sleazy womanizing two-bit entertainer named Joey Evans in 1930s Depression-era Chicago, and the most challenging woman into whose bed he worms his way is the richbitch Vera Simpson so intelligently portrayed by Ms. Channing.

Joey Evans began life in a series of epistolary short stories by John O’Hara — the great John O’Hara — in The New Yorker magazine. It reached Broadway in 1940 in a script (or “book”) by O’Hara wrapped around some thrilling — and enduring — songs by Lorenz Hart (words) and Richard Rodgers (music), only to be slaughtered at birth by good gray Brooks Atkinson of the good gray New York Times, who wrote the whole thing off as “an odious story” about “a frowzy nightclub punk.”

“Pal Joey” had been revived here, unsuccessfully, once or twice over the years, but now, at Studio 54, had reappeared with a new, tougher, more contemporary book by prolific playwright Richard Greenberg — only to be slaughtered all over again by the current chief reviewer of The New York Times. And the two people slaughtered in print most particularly were Matthew Risch, who plays Joey, and Stockard Channing as Vera Simpson. For all that, deep into the run the show had still been drawing packed, enthusiastic houses.

“I’m so glad you’ve called it a renewal,” Ms. Stockard said as she sat down to be interviewed. “Because it’s not a revival.” The interviewer said he hated the word “revival” anyway. The star of “Pal Joey” said: “So do I.”

She had “only vaguely known” of “Pal Joey” until the part came her way via director Joe Mantello, and the next order of business had been to meet with playwright Greenberg to talk about “the tenor of things — because I didn’t want her [Vera] to be campy, not a man-eating drag queen. Richard totally agreed. He carried on the spirit of the original in language that sounds like an old movie” — but isn’t.

I told her what that lady had said just now, leaving the theater, and that I myself, like my mother before me, thought “Pal Joey” to be the first serious, intelligent Broadway musical I had ever seen. And that was largely thanks to the complexity of the character named Vera — who couldn’t sleep and wouldn’t sleep until she could sleep where she shouldn’t sleep

“Yes,” said the real live four-times-married woman who was portraying Vera Simpson eight times a week not 50 feet from where we now sat, “she is a woman of a certain age and deep sexuality and deep frustration.”

The fact is that whenever yours truly has seen Stockard Channing on stage in anything — “House of Blue Leaves,” “Hapgood,” “Six Degrees of Separation” and now this — he has felt a real, not a fake, sexuality flowing across the footlights. And even more so with this “Pal Joey.”

“Well, it’s true,” she said. “Matt and I have great chemistry together. It builds. You can’t plan a thing like that.”

The Matt in question was the slim, agile young Matthew Risch who’d taken over the part of Joey Evans when the production’s male headliner suffered an injury shortly before opening night. The Times may have trashed Risch’s Joey Evans, but I thought he was quite good as a louse with the power to charm, even if I kept hearing the soft tough voice of Gene Kelly, the very first (1940) Joey Evans, behind every note and word of, for instance, the heart-stopping “If They Asked Me, I Could Write a Book.”

Susan Antonia Williams Stockard, as her name then was, grew up on Manhattan’s privileged Upper East Side. Her father, Lester Napier Stockard, was in shipping. Her mother, Mary Alice English Stockard, was from a prominent Brooklyn Irish-American family. At an appropriate age, their daughter was sent off to the Madeira School — a classy boarding school in McLean, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C.

Had she had to wear a uniform, one asked.

“Yeah, yeah, of course. Makes life simpler.”  A laugh. “This is all so long ago I can hardly remember it.”

Madeira was followed by Harvard University; more properly by Radcliffe College, the then female branch of Harvard, She always speaks of it as just plain Harvard — from which she was graduated with, she lets one know, a summa cum laude in general studies. The year was 1965.

Somewhere in there, at age 19, came marriage to businessman Walter Channing, whose last name she appropriated, and kept, when she turned to acting. The marriage lasted four years; it would be followed by three others.

You’ve been married more times than Vera Simpson, the interviewer ventured to say.

“Well, Vera was only married once,” replied this other Vera, “and I’ve been with a man 23 years now” — cinematographer Dan Gillham.

What got her into acting was a student production of the Brecht-Weill “Threepenny Opera” that Lotte Lenya, as Pirate Jenny, had emblazened a decade earlier at the Theater de Lys in Greenwich Village.

“The guy directing the [Harvard] show came to me and said: ‘You can do this’  ” — be Jenny, the nihilistic hotel scrub-maid who wants to blow everything and everybody to hell and gone with the guns of her black freighter. “I don’t know how I did it, but I did it. And it changed my life.”

She broke in on the New York stage as a very minor member of Joseph Papp’s 1971 Public Theater production — from Central Park to Broadway — of “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”

Stockard Channing is, as noted, very serious about theater, very serious about everything. If Peter Nichols’s “Joe Egg” tore this viewer apart, it first had so torn her. And what got that work from a small theater within the Fashion Institute on West 27th Street to the big time of Broadway in 1985 was … our girl Stockard — who would thereupon win a Tony Award for her embodiment of gallant, frenzied Sheila.

“I went to the Shuberts,” the actress said now, “My friend Frank Langella told me: ‘You have to do it yourself,’ so I went myself to Bernie [Jacobs] and Jerry [Gerald Schoenfeld]” — Shubert executives who have since passed on after naming a couple of prime Broadway theaters after themselves — “and pled my case. But that’s now a long time ago.”

She’s been in at least three bad movies, one of which, “The Big Bus,” I told her I had seen. “And I’m not going to tell you the other two,” she said. The character more familiar to most viewers is, or was, First Lady Abbey Bartlet of television’s “West Wing.” She has, by the way, little or no use for the Hollywood version of “Pal Joey” starring Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth. “It really has nothing to do with the play.”

By which she means this musical, this renewal.  “I haven’t been on stage since ‘The Lion in Winter’ ” — in 1999, opposite Laurence Fishburn. “No,” she corrected herself, “not since ‘Awake and Sing’ ’’ — Clifford Odets’ Bronx masterpiece — at the Almeida in London.

What do you know about Jews, one wondered aloud.

“Well, I’m from New York.  And I married one.”

Did you play the mother or the daughter?

A giggle. Then: “Thank you, Jerry. The mother.”

To do “Pal Joey” she had had to disrupt her personal life, get in shape, “get enough stamina to sing out loud. I always loved singing anyway,” said the actress who, in her 30s, had played high school girl Rizzo in “Grease” and took over from Liza Minnelli in “The Rink.”

The fate of “Pal Joey,” like most of Broadway – like most of the world – was up for grabs as we talked.

“I love doing this show,” she said, “and will inevitably be sad when it’s over. You get fantastic support from so many people, technicians and others, when you’re in a musical. It’s like being on an ocean liner, or being in a Billy Wilder movie — a real big machine ticking along. It’s good,” said the Stockard Channing — who is ever and again pretty damn good herself.