The book of French


By Jerry Tallmer

Eight times a week Arthur French recently had to die on stage – just lay down and die, in front of the dining table – as cranky 92-year-old Doug, a black man-servant embedded throughout life as quasi member of a white Texan family, in the fine Broadway production of Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate.”

And now, at La MaMa on East 4th Street, Arthur French is playing Otto, a crazy cranky old cane-wielding man in the world premier of Leslie Lee’s symbolist drama “The Book of Lambert,” which takes place among the cave dwellers in one of New York City’s subway tunnels.

Except that Arthur French is neither blind nor dead but very much alive and still at work as an actor – a very good, much-employed actor – some 50 years after being in on the creation of the invaluable Negro Ensemble Company that grew from the seed of “Day of Absence,” Douglas Turner Ward’s premonitory 1950s comedy about a sleepy Southern town where all the blacks (cooks, maids, garbage men, laborers) have suddenly disappeared.

“I was Luke and Lonne Elder was Clem – the two guys who start the play,” says the slim, handsome goateed Arthur French of today. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

One of the thousands of alumni of the Negro Ensemble Company is playwright Leslie Lee, whose Obie-winning autobiographical “The First Breeze of Simmer” was the centerpiece of this year’s Signature Theater full-season NEC retrospective.

French believes that La MaMa’s current “The Book of Lambert” may in fact not be a world premiere, strictly speaking. “It was done at La MaMa 30 years ago, and Leslie Lee told us he wanted to see what he had written, and to revisit it.”

The late Peggy Feury was French’s first acting teacher. “I was in my 20s.” Nowadays French himself is a teacher, at the HB Studio on Bank Street, near where Horton Foote used to live.

Fiery Feury, this theatergoing journalist remembers.

“Yeah. Even in class. But she always knew when I was faking.”

So now you have to fake quite a bit as a blind man swinging that cane?

“Yeah. Or as a doddering 92-year-old,” he wryly murmurs.

Early in “The Book of Lambert” there is a Beckettian exchange between Otto, played by French, and Otto’s wife Zinth, played by Gloria Sauve.

OTTO: What are we waiting for, Zinth?  We just wait and wait and wait.

ZINTH: Waitin’ for you to stop bein’ so damn dead.

What kind of name is Zinth, anyway?

“I haven’t a clue,” French answers, “but after he got blinded, she supports them. He doesn’t do anything. Doesn’t have sex. Nothing. His only accomplishment is he can peel an orange.

“He has no purpose; he’s blind to everything, not just his sight but the world around him. It’s the plight of many people,” says French, even more wryly. “You get to be a certain age. What are we to do? Just wait to die? Or be as active as you can.

“This acting is something you can do. There’s no limit to it. Writing is something you can do. Both of my children write. Arthur W. French III, who last year wrote a prizewinning play called ‘Circuit Breakers,’ and my daughter Antonia, who writes for TV and is a Los Angeles person.”

Arthur French, their papa, was born in Harlem on November 6, he says, of a year he does not say. His one and only wife, their mother, Antoinette, died 10 years ago.

The actor’s own parents were both from St. Vincent in what was then the British West Indies, and at one time lived on the same block in Barbados, but never knew it until they met and married some years later in New York.

“My father had gone to sea but ended up here, where he had all sorts of hotel jobs. My mother was a factory worker in the garment district – ”

Sweatshops, that is?

“Yes. And she’d bring work home. And I learned to do embroidery, but I made her swear not to tell anybody.”

Otto, you can lay that cane down now, and open your eyes. You might as well keep busy while – like all of us – you wait.

THE BOOK OF LAMBERT. By Leslie Lee. Directed by Cyndy A. Marion. Through March 1 at La MaMa E.T.C., 74-A East 4th Street, (212) 475-7710.