An Interview with the 'Spirited' Adriane Lenox
Having movEd Gracefully through the moral shadowlands of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt, acclaimed actress Adriane Lenox now finds herself in a lighter realm - that of Noel Coward's hilarious classic Blithe Spirit, which plays the Williamstown Theatre Festival from July 18th through 29th.
In Doubt (for which she won the 2005 Best Featured Actress in a Play Tony Award, and also performed in on tour), Lenox played Mrs. Muller, whose support of the accused boys' school priest Father O'Flynn clashes with the suspicions of the dour Sister Aloysius. As Blithe Spirit's bubbly Mrs. Bradman, Lenox is herself dubious of Madame Arcati, the ectoplasm-spouting, bicycle-riding medium who will be played by "Just Shoot Me" star Wendie Malick. Mrs. Bradman and her husband attend a séance in which her novelist friend Charles Condomine plans to ascertain that Arcati is a fraud; the couple is then taken aback when Charles' dead wife starts to make her presence felt. Lenox, who is now in rehearsals with the cast, is "having fun with playing Mrs. Bradman as if she would get a kick out of something actually happening, even though she is a bit of a skeptic."
Directed by Maria Mileaf, Blithe Spirit will also feature Michael Boatman as Dr. Bradman, Kate Jennings Grant as Elvira, Jenn Harris as Edith, Jessica Hecht as Ruth, and Bernard White as Charles Condomine. Lenox, who has yet to run into any ghosts herself, says: "We're having fun figuring things out - bits, as it were." Lenox is not surprised at the enduring popularity of Blithe Spirit: "It's funny and fast, even though it's three acts and two intermissions. I think we're going to revamp and just have one intermission."
The spectral comedy of manners marks Lenox' third production at Williamstown, the prestigious summer mecca for actors. She has previously performed in the Donald Margulies play Broken Sleep and also a reading of Jenny Giering and Beth Blatt's musical The Mistress Cycle alongside Sara Ramirez, Julia Murney and others. "This was back when Michael Ritchie was the head of the festival," Lenox says of Williamstown, which is now captained by Tony Award-winner Roger Rees.
Lenox comes to Williamstown after having appeared in the national tour of Doubt through May of 2007. In it, she joined original Tony Award-winning cast member Cherry Jones, as well as Chris McGarry and Lisa Joyce (whose roles were respectively played by Brian F. O'Byrne and Heather Goldenhersh on Broadway). Lenox had appeared in six Broadway shows and also had numerous Off-Broadway and regional credits prior to Doubt, but she regards Shanley's taut and complex drama as a milestone in her career. She was very pleasantly surprised to win not only Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Awards, but the Best Featured Actress in a Play Tony: "I mean who would have thought it! It was a great year for plays and play revivals and a hell of a category to be in along with my co-star Heather and the other fabulous actresses. And it's only one relatively short scene." Indeed, Mrs. Muller's scene with Sister Aloysius lasts approximately six minutes.
The actress, who made her Broadway debut in the cast of the Fats Waller revue Ain't Misbehavin' and whose Broadway musical credits include Dreamgirls, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Kiss Me, Kate, remarks upon the irony of having received the Tony for a dramatic piece when all her other Broadway appearances have been in musicals: "Many people who have seen me in it or heard I was in it and didn't know me before, are surprised to hear it's the only straight play I've ever done on Broadway!" She's also appeared Off-Broadway and regionally in such musicals as Dinah Was (for which she won an Obie Award), Crowns and On the Town, but Lenox has always been equally at home in straight plays. Her dramatic credits include Kate Moira Ryan's Cavedweller, David Feldshuh's Miss Evers' Boys, and Suzan-Lori Parks' Venus and The America Play. While she loves performing in musicals, she admits that "plays are becoming my favorite. I'd like to one day be able to say I was in more than one play on Broadway."
Lenox finds that Caroline, or Change, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner with Jeanine Tesori, has afforded her her most emotionally demanding musical role to date; she stood by for Tonya Pinkins in the title role of the ill-paid New Orleans maid, whose sense of frustration is representative of the emerging Civil Rights Movement. She's played other challenging musical theatre roles, too, and says that, "I had also done a two character musical called The Jazz Club at The Coconut Grove Playhouse a few years back, so I'd had experience carrying a show where I had to do all the singing."
Dreamgirls is one musical of which Lenox holds fond memories. A replacement performer as Charlene and other roles, she also understudied the role of effervescent Lorrell during Dreamgirls' original run and "took over the role when Loretta Divine took a leave of absence. I got to perform opposite David Alan Grier and Hinton Battle when they did their stints as Jimmy Early. One vivid memory is when I was in the ensemble and the other ladies and myself became hooked on Boggle and Uno, playing religiously in our dressing rooms! Also, watching David Alan Grier and Obba Babatunde cut up in the stairwell doing their hilarious characters" (Babatunde played C.C. White).
While Lenox has appeared in dozens of plays and musicals, she also maintains a thriving career as a concert and cabaret artist. She recently performed the song "Mother Nature" at the Williamstown Late-Night Cabaret, and last summer, played two sold-out performances with her show "New School/Old School" at the Triad Theatre. With the singer/actress performing pop, blues, gospel, standards and original songs, Lenox' concert was a bit of a family affair, as husband Zane Mark was musical director and daughter Crystal Joy - a rising young singer/songwriter - made a special appearance. Lenox says proudly of Crystal Joy: "She has God-given singing abilities and a knack for songwriting." When asked if she gives much training or advice to her daughter, she responds: "Sure, I give her warm-up technique and things like that from time to time, but she could already sing and has a tremendous ear."
While Lenox can most often be found on the stage, she's no stranger to the worlds of film and television, as well. Most recently, she appeared in Wong Kar Wai's My Blueberry Nights, with Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci in the suspenseful drama Black Snake Moan, and with Amanda Peet and Durmot Mulroney in the romance Griffin & Phoenix. She's also been seen on "Law & Order" (both the original and "SVU") and "Third Watch." When asked why she continually returns to the stage in the midst of a flourishing film and TV career, she says gratefully, "I'm asked to!"
The versatile actress reports that after Blithe Spirit, she will next travel to La Jolla Playhouse to work on the developmental production of Jessica Hagedorn and Mark Bennett's music theatre piece The Edge: Most Wanted, directed by Michael Greif. It's the latest phase of an acting journey that began in Tennessee, where she "started as a child in church in Christmas and Easter plays that the head of the Sunday School department, Octavia Thompson, would find so that we could participate in sharing our faith and learn to speak well and be comfortable in front of people."
With Blithe Spirit, Lenox will once again demonstrate that she's learned her childhood lessons very well.
Photos - 1) by Walter McBride/Retna Ltd.; 2) With (left to right): Kate Jennings Grant, Wendie Malick, Jessica Hecht, Michael Boatman, Adriane Lenox, Bernard White and (in front) Jenn Harris; photo by Andy Tew; 3) By Joan Marcus - as Mrs. Muller in Doubt; 4) and 5) by Ben Strothmann