Volume 17 • Issue 4 | June 18 - 24, 2004

Theater


“Clurman”
Fri, Sat, June 18-19, 8 p.m.
Phil Bosakowski Theatre
354 West 45th Street, second floor
Tickets, $15, (800) 490-1175

“THE GROUP”
by Ronald Rand,
a reading by John Martello, David Pressman, and others
American Academy of Dramatic Arts
120 Madison Avenue.
Tues June 29, 3 pm


Spirit of the Group Theater evoked

A conversation with its last living member

By Jerry Tallmer

Copyright by Lloyd H. Slomanson

Pictured are David Pressman, Ronald Rand and Phoebe Brand in a recent photo.

“The Group” is a full-length script by Ronald Rand about the founding of the Group Theater, that pioneering handful of actors, directors, and playwrights who in the bleak 1930s moved American drama into the gristle of the twentieth century. In its short life, about a dozen years, the Group had its impact on everything that followed in American theater, especially the kind of acting that would presently give us a Julie Harris, a Marlon Brando, a Kim Stanley, an Al Pacino, a Meryl Streep, a Robert de Niro.

The play opens with the Group in formation at a summer retreat in Connecticut. An ingenue named Phoebe Brand has rescued a baby sandpiper and hands it to playwright Clifford Odets, who says: “It’s so beautiful! Look, he’s looking at me!”

Well, Odets, who gave the world “Waiting for Lefty,” “Awake and Sing,” “Golden Boy,” “Rocket to the Moon,” and more, left us in 1963, but Phoebe Brand, at 96, is very much with us, in an apartment right here on West 43rd Street. She remembers everything including the tumultuous, historic opening night of “Waiting for Lefty,” January 5, 1935, at the old Civic Repertory Theater on West 14th Street.

“That was an affair to remember,” she says of the first performance of the Odets hammer blow about a starvation-driven taxi drivers’ union meeting under the thumb of management goons. It ended with cries of “STRIKE! STRIKE!” by actors and audience, sparked by a young Elia Kazan.

This was fated to be the same Elia Kazan to whom and of whom, to the end of his life, Phoebe Brand would never again speak except with quiet fury — the Kazan who’d named names, including hers and that of her husband Morris Carnovsky, during the invidious HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) years of the early 1950s.

“In that rickety theater [the Civic Repertory], the people were stomping in the balcony. I thought the building was coming down,” says the actress. There was a huge jam on 14th Street. “All those cheering taxi drivers. The police stopped them. The crowds were too big. The police were hitting people with their billy sticks, and the people ran.

“When we [the actors] went out on the street, people came up to us and asked: ‘How could you do that?’ [be so real on stage] — marvelous!’ ”

The “Sid” and “Florie” of that first production — young dreamers trapped in the grip of grim economic reality — were Jules Garfield (whom Hollywood would rename John Garfield) and Phoebe Brand.

She laughed as she spoke of a scene between actors Tony Kraber, as a dedicated young research scientist, and Morris Carnovsky, as the lab administrator who tries to get the younger man to squeal on any radical associates.

“At the end, the man Morris played says: ‘No hard feelings?’ And the character Tony Kraber played says: ‘Sure, hard feelings.’ With that [in the heat of performance], Tony punched Morris in the nose, and broke his nose. Such a beautiful nose!” she said.

Morris Carnovsky would become her lifelong husband. A photo of him as King Lear adorns one wall of the 43rd Street apartment, across from a signed program of Edwin Booth as Hamlet.

“A doctor set the nose in the dressing room. Morris played the whole rest of the show bleeding.”

No, broken noses weren’t a common occurrence in the Group. Broken relationships, broken feelings, often were.

Productions and would-be productions often happened concurrently at the Group.

“At the same time as ‘Waiting for Lefty’ we were rehearsing ‘Johnny Johnson’ [the Paul Green/Kurt Weill anti-war musical] up in the country at Pinebrook, Connecticut. Kurt Weill was there. Lotte Lenya was there.

“It was on the SIDE that we were doing ‘Waiting for Lefty,’ kind of off-the-cuff. We didn’t know if it would be any good. Clifford wrote that play in two weeks’ time. No changes. Brilliant.”

The triumvirate that started the Group Theater, coming over from the Theatre Guild, was Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, and Cheryl Crawford. All three are now gone.

“That summer [of 1934] we also did one act, the last act, of ‘Awake and Sing’ ”— the great Odets play about the Berger family of the Bronx, and Grandpa Jacob (Carnovsky, in his late 30s playing a man in his 70s) who passes along to grandson Ralph (Jules Garfield) the passionate injunction: “Go out and fight so life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills,” one of the ringing lines in all American literature, much less drama.

“Clifford was from Philadelphia. He was a stranger here. He came and fell in love with New York. He’d walk around” — she acts it out — “saying: ‘Oh, what a beautiful building! . . . Oh, what a beautiful subway!’ He used to listen to everyone and write everything down. And that’s where he heard some man saying he’d weighed himself twice in the subway.”

That ended up in “Awake and Sing,” spoken by Myron Berger, husband of Bessie, father of Hennie. The original production, Belasco Theater, February 1935, had Stella Adler as Bessie Berger, powerhouse of the family; Phoebe Brand as her restless, unsatisfied daughter Hennie; Sanford Meisner as Hennie’s nebbish, greenhorn, unloved husband; Art Smith as her ineffective, daydreaming father; Carnovsky as old Jacob, Garfield as young Ralph, and Luther Adler as Moe Axelrod, the caustic boarder who’d lost a leg in World War I and for whom Hennie ultimately leaves husband and child.

At Act I curtain, Moe Axelrod gropes in a fruit bowl and explodes: “What the hell kind of house is this it ain’t got an orange!” When the show reached Chicago, the audience was not friendly.

“They threw oranges and apples. I was hit by a grapefruit. Stella stepped forward and said: ‘These are your actors. You have to protect them.’

“Arthur Miller saw that production in Chicago. He has said it made him want to write plays. He even remembers the color of the refrigerator. People are always reviving ‘Awake and Sing,’ but they don’t get it, don’t get the poetry.”

Odets’s “Awake and Sing” was in fact almost strangled in its cradle. Strasberg had turned thumbs-down on it.

“Lee stood up and said: ‘Clifford, we don’t like your play.’ But Stella said: ‘Lee, we like that play.’ She saved it. And then Harold said: ‘Let’s all take time off, and come back in the fall, and I’ll direct it.’ What nerve Harold had!’ says Phoebe Rand, meaning courage. “He had never directed anything.”

Ronald Rand studied under, and reveres, Harold Clurman. In addition to the full-length “The Group,” which gets a reading June 29 at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Rand wrote and performs the one-man “Clurman” that’s to be reprised this Friday and Saturday. June 18 and 19, at the Phil Bosakowski Theatre on West 45th Street.

Rand believes that Strasberg didn’t like “Awake and Sing” because it was too close to Lee Strasberg’s own Lower East Side family background.
“I had no relationship at all to Hennie, I wasn’t even Jewish. It was Harold who gave me the action that saved me,” says actress Brand. “It was I want to get out of this apartment — just get out! I’d read magazines, do my nails, anything to get out. Simple things like that. You could apply it to anything.”

In all the long years of the blacklist — what Stefan Kanfer calls “The Plague Years” — Morris Carnovsky established a formidable career as an acting teacher, and so did Phoebe Brand.

There in her apartment, listening in, Ronald Rand inquires tongue-in-cheek: “What was so good about Morris?”

“You have to ask? He was gorgeous! He looked like an actorovich! I teach Morris’s method, based on three things: The self, the object, and action between those two.

“With the Group I met Stanislavsky. He was not dogmatic; he was an investigator, same as Morris. Morris was studying acting till the day he died.

“To find yourself is the hardest thing to do. My students, when they find themselves — with simplicity — they don’t try to act. It’s not that they should do less,” she says. “They should do more in a different way.”

Phoebe Brand, whose father was chief mechanical engineer for Remington typewriters, was born in Syracuse, New York, brought up in Ilian, N.Y., and Stamford Connecticut.

“My mother loved theater, adored it. She took me to see Maude Adams in ‘Peter Pan.’ I saw ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’ I saw Duse! I saw Pavlova! I saw Barrymore’s ‘Hamlet’ — gorgeous.”

As a very young woman she auditioned for Winthrop Ames, founder/director of an American Gilbert & Sullivan company. “I opened my mouth and nothing came out. Mr. Ames said: ‘Never mind, darling, you’re in.’ I heard from other people, he fell in love with me the minute he saw me. For two years I played a lot of princesses with that company.”

She then auditioned for Cheryl Crawford at the Theatre Guild. Like Winthrop Ames, Miss Crawford said: “Okay, you’ve got it” — “and Lynne Fontanne worked with me and said: ‘You’re going to be a big actress.’ ”

A Group Theater effort called “1931” crashed just as the stock market had.

“Franchot Tone was wonderful in that. The critics said: ‘Where’s the Depression?’ Well, you’d walk out of the theater and there it is all around you, right on 42nd Street. People as badly off as in the play, and worse than that. I used to walk 40 blocks to work.”

The invitation to join the Group had come by a letter from Harold Clurman to Phoebe Brand and 30 others. The new adventure in American theater didn’t even have a name yet.

“I packed just one suitcase. I was thrilled. We all said, Thank God! We’re all going away to the country and we’re going to build a theater.”

Harold Clurman, who directed many stunning plays and wrote a stunning and crucial book, “The Fervent Years” — a biography, so to speak, of the Group — was more than once in his life, not least during the construction of Lincoln Center, heard to say: “You don’t start a theater with a building. You start with an idea.”

The Group Theater was an idea, and still is.



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