Reliving the Irish wars

06 Dec
December 6, 2013

“It just doesn’t happen that you get to work with Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, and Angela Lansbury all at the same time. I was incredibly fortunate.” So says Mary-Pat Green of her role in the original Broadway cast of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 1979. She played Mrs. Mooney, the pie shop owner who ”put pussies in her pies.” Not to be confused with her pie shop rival, Mrs. Lovett, played by Lansbury, who put chunks of Sweeney Todd’s victims in her pies. In her current role as Mrs. O’Dea in The Steward of Christendom, Green moves from the 19th century England of Sweeney Todd to the 20th century turmoil of revolutionary Ireland. Mrs. O’Dea is a compassionate widow, a seamstress in the mental asylum where Thomas Dunne (Brian Dennehy) is spending his declining years reliving the vivid adventures of his youth. “Brian is a force of nature,” Green says. “It’s an amazing honor to work with him.” The character Dennehy plays in The Steward of Christendom, Thomas Dunne, was a real historical character actually named James Dunne. He was Chief Superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police and a Catholic loyal to the British crown at a time when Irish Protestants were fighting for their independence from British rule. Among other duties, he was responsible for maintaining order in Dublin Castle, the headquarters of the British government in Ireland for more than 700 years. To make things even more difficult, he and his family lived there and were part of the “Castle Catholics” regarded with contempt by the revolutionaries. In 1922 the outgoing British handed Dublin Castle over to Michael Collins, the leader of the Irish Republican Army during the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921 and subsequent leader of the Free State Army during the Irish Civil War of 1922-1923. Collins was assassinated in the late summer of 1922. The Steward of Christendom begins in 1932, a decade after Dunne’s last days in office when, as playwright Sebastian Barry, his great- grandson, describes him, he was “boggy in the head and thinner and unpredictable enough to have his grandchildren kept away from him.” But apparently he is not frightening to Mrs. O’Dea, according to Mary-Pat Green. “He tells wonderful stories,” she says, “and reminds her of her late husband.” Green, who is Irish herself, through her father’s side, was born in Kansas City to “incredible parents” who supported her decision to leave the University of Kansas at 20 to “follow my passion for musical theater” to New York. Once there, she studied at the Herbert Berghof Studios. But her “amazing education” took off when she answered a non-Equity casting call and won a part in Godspell in 1971. “We toured for a year, changing venues every one or two nights,” she says. “We played in civic centers and universities and other public places, and everywhere we went the stage was different and we had to reinvent the blocking and try not to trip over the set.” She also spent a year and a half in Hal Prince’s 1974 Broadway revival of Candide, and has performed the role of Mother Superior in Nunsense more than 1500 times in off-Broadway and multiple regional productions. She was the second person to play that part in a series that has been running for decades. In 1991 she moved to Los Angeles because she wanted to try TV and films and since then she has worked steadily in both mediums. “The ‘90s were a great time for sitcoms,” she says, “and my theater skills turned out to be very helpful.” “But now,” she laments, “reality shows have made it a dark time for actors on TV.” She notes that she plays “either prison inmates or judges, police women or murderers” but is most often recognized for the bathroom scene in the film My Best Friend’s Wedding where she calls Julia Roberts a tramp. “People come up to me on the street and holler ‘Tramp!’” she laughs. And she still loves musical theater. In 1995 she was nominated for an Ovation award for her role in the musical Chess. And in 2002 she played journalist Lorena Hickok, purported to be Eleanor Roosevelt’s lover, in Michael John LaChiusa’s First Lady Suite. Both plays were produced by the Blank Theatre Company. Though the rumor about the Hickok-Roosevelt relationship was not directly alluded to in the play, Green hinted at it as she sang the song “Eleanor’s Hand”, and she had to display her jealousy when Amelia Earhart invited Eleanor for a ride in her airplane. Another musical she was cast in was Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge, a show that was meant to be a “continuation” of the earlier megahit Annie. Dorothy Loudon, the original Miss Hannigan, was set to reprise that role, but the misbegotten plot had her escaping from prison and plotting to murder Annie. “Previews began on December 22nd at the Kennedy Center in Washington,” Green explains, “and everyone brought their little girls to see it.” (According to reports, there were 700 children in the audience for that first preview.) “And it was a disaster. Nobody wanted to see a musical in which the child star gets kidnapped and possibly murdered!” Annie 2 opened in Washington on January 4th and closed on January 15th after 36 performances. It had been revised and rewritten countless times during its brief run, but nothing could save it. Green is confident that no such fate will befall The Steward of Christendom. “Steven Robman is directing if, and Sebastian Barry’s script is so gorgeous,” she says. “It’s poetic writing and it just works.” In this play she delivers her lines with an Irish accent, which is a switch from the Cockney accent she used in her last play: Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels,which ran at the Pasadena Playhouse and the Laguna Playhouse earlier this year. “For The Steward of Christendom we have Carla Meyer, one of the top dialogue coaches in the country working with us,” Green notes. “And we have the additional help of Smith, cast member James Lancaster, who is from Ireland himself. So we’re in good hands.” She notes that Brian Dennehy, who lives primarily in his memories, has “10 huge, long monologues and six or seven shorter ones. It’s a bear of a role, which is why not many actors play it.” As for which roles she herself would most like to play at some future time, she mentions Mama Rose in Gypsy and Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. Then, asked what actor, living or dead, she would most like to act with, she responds immediately. “Angela Lansbury,” she says. “She is the quintessential Broadway musical star. It’s hard to get any better than that.” She stops and thinks, and a bright smile settles on her face. “Well,” she says, “I guess I’ve already had my dream.” The Steward of Christendom<. Mark Taper

Forum. 135 N. Grand Ave. Los Angeles. Opens Sunday, Dec. 8 at 7pm. Runs Tues-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30 and 8pm, Sun 1 and 6:30pm through January 5, 2014. Additional performances Mon. Dec. 23 and 30 at 8pm. No performances Dec.24 and 25 and Jan.1. Tickets: $20-$70. www,CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213.628.2772. Photo: Mary-Pat Green, Brian Dennehy, and James Lancaster Photo by Craig Schwartz

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