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Photo of Marian Seldes by Randy Gener

This is the way Marian Seldes greets her new friends: her hawk-like eyes crinkling into smiles, she swoops her arms around you and immediately takes you into her confidence. "Ask me anything you want," she says, with a sort of kooky flourish. "You are so kind and so nice. I am completely at your disposal." Within seconds, she spins an engrossing tale or tells a surprising anecdote about herself, and it's as if you've been bossom buddies for years. And she truly means it when she says that you've got her complete attention. During parties, she's a magnet that attracts various admirers, starstruck fans and awed well-wishers, but if the two of you have already struck a lively conversation the others will have to wait and take their turn.

If you happen to bump into her down the busy streets of New York City, Seldes has that inimitable way of making you feel that you are the center of her universe. What Lee Strasberg once said about Eleanor Duse's "strange way of smiling" totally applies to the way Seldes' presence radiates: "It seemed to come from the toes. It seemed to move through the body and arrive at the face and mouth and resembled the sun coming out of the cloud."

In Neil Simon's "45 Seconds From Broadway," the redoubtable Seldes does more than merely make a series of hysterical grand entrances. Playing the supremely dotty Rayleen, the actress slides through the glass doors of John Lee Beatty's eerie replica of the Café Edison on West 47th Street, snugly arm-in-arm with her affluent husband Charles Browning III, and arrives in a way that halt traffic.What immediately attracts everyone's notice in the café, however, is the monstrously ugly fur coat that Rayleen insists on draping over an ostentatious Old World get-up that consists of clanky jewelry, garish makeup and colorfully droopy finery. Rayleen is so obliviously eccentric that she elicits a buzz of derisive laughter and appalled looks. If she were crossing the streets of Times Square, Rayleen would probably cause a major accident. If animal-loving fanatics ever ran into her coming out of Café Edison, they would most likely not even bother throwing a bucket of paint on her heinous-looking fur coat, figuring that she has already successfully carried out her own defacement.

"The part of Rayleen is very funny, but there's something else going on that very, very disturbing," Seldes told me. "She's almost insane. There's something seriously wrong with her." Despite a long and varied career that has ranged from Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Tony Kushner, Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov, the big surprise is that "45 Seconds from Broadway" is the first time Seldes has been assigned to bring to theatrical life a Neil Simon comedy.

"I didn't dream I'd be in a Neil Simon play," the actress said. "It's a fantasy come true. As an actress, people always ask me what parts I'd like to play and you can see look on their faces when they refer to a role that someone else is already playing and they tell me, 'My God, you can do that.' I've always said, even when I just started out, that my dream is to create parts that no one else has ever played, with the playwright there. In a sense this has come true with Edward Albee and now with Neil Simon. It's exciting and liberating that you're not following in someone else's footsteps. The responsibility of fulfilling what the playwright saw when he wrote the play is enormous. But I am much more interested in taking on that responsibility than I am playing parts by Shakespeare, Shaw or Chekhov which most people have seen other people play. Here's you're part of the invention."

Seldes belongs to that rare breed of one-of-a-kind actresses who send a jolt of electricity through a brand new play -- a live-wire current that audiences immediately sense. In Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women", for instance, just the way Seldes stooped her tall, angular body gave layers of mystery and danger to the role of an unnamed Woman which perilously veered to the dark wells of the merely symbolic. Her strength as an actress lies in an intuitive ability to flesh out thinly written characters, like the mother in Theresa Rebeck's "The Butterfly Collection" or the grande dame in Tina Howe's "Painting Churches", and transform them from familiar types to full-blown creations who are often the plays' most mature characters.

In "45 Seconds From Broadway," now in previews and opening Nov. 11, Seldes' nutty Rayleen is just one of the many customers who frequent the Café Edison. But with each hilarious entrance that she makes, Seldes' high-comic partnership with Bill Moor, (the actor playing Rayleen's husband Charles), turns out to be the glue that binds the whole episodic comedy together. And the wonder of it is who Charles remains resigned and silent, and the very peculiar Rayleen who jabbers on and on about this and that, emitting audible gasps of recognition at other people in the cafe whom she's never met before and yet greets effusively, as well as terrorizing the waiters with requests for food items that don't appear in the menu.

Seldes said that it isn't firm conviction as an actress that gives the part of Rayleen its spine. She may be the more outspoken member of a symbiotic pair of doddering old foggies, but the comedy simply won't work if she isn't clear about her wants and desires. Rayleen must fuss over Charles and pay him notice. She must listen to him, seriously and intently. She must pause and turn to him and wait for him to react. She must make her turn the act of listening into active behavior. "We are absolutely a partnership, Charles and I," she explained. "He is speaking to me. I am married to him. I know him. I live with him. I am having a conversation with him all through the play." In other words, it is sheerly incidental that Charles largely doesn't speak, a quirk of personality or a piece of oddity. "When he does speak, I am almost silenced by his passion," Seldes continued. "There isn't a moment until Charles speaks that he isn't speaking to me. If I am saying something clearly, I get the answer I want from his silence. I feed off what [the actor Bill Moore] has created without words. We're absolutely a pair."

The daughter of journalist and author Gilbert Seldes and niece of journalist George Seldes, Marian Seldes studied acting at New York City's Neighborhood Playhouse under legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner. She came up the ranks working with the likes of Judith Anderson, Katharine Cornell and Sir John Gielgud. She has written a book about acting and a novel, and she taught acting at Juilliard from 1967 to 1991, ceasing only after she married the late playwright Garson Kanin.

"I was in my 50s when Garson came into my life," she said. "I realized that the hours I spent in Juilliard were hours I could spent with him. Little by little I moved away from teaching. I kept acting. I just didn't want to be away from him. It was too important, too wonderful. I adored teaching. I have something that comes back to me, which is that I see my students often, and I even act with them. For instance, Frances Conroy and I have been together in several plays"

The last time Seldes performed at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where "45 Seconds From Broadway" performs nightly, she acted with Audrey Hepburn in "Ondine", for which Hepburn won a Tony Award (as did its director Alfred Lunt). "It was so beautiful and almost unreal," Seldes recalled. "I still carry this amazing memory of appearing with Audry in this very theatre in 1954, and now here I am in an equally thrilling projec that is so utterly different. I love both of them. I played princess in Ondine. I don't know who this person was, because I am now playing Rayleen, but I look back on that experience like a dream."

Randy Gener is a founding writer and frequent contributor to the New York Theatre Wire. He also contributes to The Village Voice, The Newark Star Ledger, Stagebill, American Theatre, Dramatists Guild Quarterly and HX Magazine. His e-mail address is RNDYGENER@AOL.COM.

But it wasn't until late in her acting life that Seldes has been handed more comic assignments. Because of her lineage, accomplishments and reputation, he used to walk around with the label "serious actress." "I guess my looks don't look funny," Seldes remarked, with a knowing laugh. "But I always played comedy when I was young in summer stock. It's just that in New York theatre, I was often given these serious parts. If you go through life and no one knows you, it's hard to find parts for older actresses. When you get slightly categorized as a serious young actress, it's hard to find parts in that line of work when you get older. It's never easy. Wonderful parts are written for men and women. It's just the question of economy and how many plays are done. The fact that I am of certain age isn't really what is most significant to me. I have played all ages, even in school with Sandy Meisner. I feel it would hold me back terribly if I had to be the age to play the part. In film it's probably more difficult, but I don't have that problem because I don't play significant parts in film. Ultimately I don't think of comedy and tragedy. I think of what a character wants and how the character achieves her goals."[Gener]

"45 Seconds from Broadway" performs at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46nd St., between Broadway and Eighth Avenue Featured Performers are Lewis J. Stadlen, Marian Seldes, Louis Zorich, Joan Copeland, Alix Korey, Judy Blazer, David Margulies, Julie Lund, Bill Moor, Kevin Carroll, Alix Korey and Dennis Creaghan.Creative Team: Play by Neil Simon. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Sets by John Le Beatty. Costumes by William Ivey Long. Lighting by Paul Gallo. Producer: Emanuel Azenberg. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200.

Copyright © 2001 Randy Gener.


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