by Ellis Nassour

    He's back, and Marian's got him - again! The "he" would be Brian Murray; the "Marian" is - honestly, folks, isn't there only one Marian? : Marian Seldes [the almost royal Marian, a.k.a. St. Marian of the Proscenium]. The dynamic duo, who long ago became intimate friends, are onstage together for the third time in Beckett/Albee, reviving four rarely performed one-acts by the playwrights.

    The first act plays are: Not I, A Piece of Monlogue and Footfalls from that wild and crazy guy Beckett's Theater of the Absurd repertory; and, for the second half, Albee's Counting the Ways, which the co-stars describe as a "vaudeville."

    It is a disparate combination from playwrights so many feel have so much in common. Seldes isn't one of them. "Darling," she states with great authority, "one has nothing to do with the other!" Seldes, who won a 1967 Tony Award as the daughter in A Delicate Balance and portrayed two roles in 1994's Three Tall Women, is an Albee expert. But Murray gently interjects, "Except that they both are obsessed with the usage of words."

    And in Murray's Monologue and Seldes' exciting Not I [in some circles, a.k.a. Lips], her quite veiled filibuster monlogue, they spew forth with lots of words. [Trivia: Abbott & Costello were so inspired on experiencing Beckett's Footfalls, that they went straight home and came up with their classic vaudeville routine "Slowly I Turn" -- this is hearsay, but from quite reliable sources.]

    Counting the Ways wakes every snoozing audience member up. It's classic, trademark Albee, a series of vignettes [complete with "drum roll blackouts" about a very elegant married couple constantly seeking romantic assurances. He took his title from a line of Elizabeth Barrett Browning poetry [his original was Scenes from A Marriage, but that had been taken]. Like The Play About the Baby, their previous outing together, it's filled with sarcastic dialogue; and Murray and Seldes are in a similar position to theirs in TPATB. They were simply referred to in the credits as Man and Woman; here, they are He and She. The subject is love and it's obvious these two players are immensely enjoying themselves. The most fun comes when they are invited by the playwright to break the fourth wall.

    The New York Times' Ben Brantley, in his review, compared their onstage chemistry to Fred and Ginger, adding: "When Brian Murray and Marian Seldes get together in a play by Edward Albee, it's as if they are dancing on air."

    They are. According to Murray, "we're having the time of their lives" and nothing short of a lovefest. It is one that has come somewhat late in their careers and lives [he's approaching mid-60s and Seldes is, hummm, a woman of a certain age]. They have ebulliently enthused publicly at American Theatre Wing events and in print of their great mutual admiration -- an admiration, Seldes admitted, that can lead to problems for her. She has said that watching Murray work she sometimes -- amazingly -- loses focus. Such devotional flattery can
    get Murray more than a bit red-faced, but he is equally generous in
    his praise of Seldes. He says their collaborations are easy because they have great confidence and trust in each other, adding. "For us, "working together is heaven."

    They first co-starred five years ago as husband and wife at Playwrights Horizons in Theresa Rebeck's Butterfly Collection. In 2001 they garnered great acclaim in Albee's TPATB, which debuted at East 15th Street's Century Center for the Performing Arts, where B/A is running. After nine years of marriage, Seldes had recently lost her second husband, Garson Kanin, and, being in the company of an old friend, they bonded.

    Alone or together, they're always working, whether on Broadway or Off. When Murray is not acting, he's directing.

    Murray says he can't explain why he's always in demand. "It's a matter of luck and timing," he chuckles during a rehearsal break. "Being available and that job being right, then being available for another than can follow. It's all just luck."

    That's a bit hard to swallow. Talent, easy to work with and reputation must also enter the equation. Interestingly, Murray has never met a part he didn't like. And he never considers the size of a role, or whether the audience will like his character. Two favorite roles are John Tarleton in Misalliance (which he did at Roundabout) and his Tony-nominated Ben in The Little Foxes (for Lincoln Center Theatre).

    "Misalliance is one of Shaw's most affectionate and funniest plays," he notes, "but I can't say Tarleton is the standout because it's really an ensemble piece. However, he's the most agreeable character. In fact, he agrees with everything. I loved the journey Shaw takes him on and, since he goes thorough some nice changes, the challenge of attempting that. Ben is one of Lillian Hellman's best-drawn characters. He's evil incarnate, right on a par with Regina, who's his perfect match. Playing that sort of part can be great fun!"

    Murray was born of British parents in South Africa. His mother had been a dancer who wanted to become an actress, "but then came World War II and it never worked out." His father was in the Army [a total of six years] "and Mother had to do whatever it took to support us."

    When he was seven, his mother had him take elocution. Not long after, his teacher suggested him for a play. "I remember it vividly. It was King John. It was my first Shakespeare, and I didn't do any again for years. I was blessed in that in the 50s, there were a lot of plays written with wonderful parts for juveniles. One after another, I managed to weedle my parents into letting me do them. I was being paid. I liked that! They liked that!

    "We didn't have television until way after I left in the mid-70s. I grew up completely without it. I worked an awful lot in radio. That gave me a very good grounding. I was directed and taught by fine English directors who'd come out for a gig during the English winter, our summer."

    After he left school, he did two years of professional acting. "I was working so much, I didn't go to university. I was happy doing what I wanted to do, so I didn't see the need to go. When I was 18, my parents separated. I applied to Lamda in London and was accepted. My parents saw it as a great opportunity and let me go. But, before I even enrolled, I got a job in a rep company and that's where I really received my education."

    In 1961 he was accepted into the Royal Shakespeare Company and landed in New York in 1964 on their world tour in honor of Shakespeare's quattrocentenary. "It was the RSC's first U.S. tour," he recollects. "We did King Lear, directed by Peter Brook at Lincoln Center in the New York State Theatre, the only time there's ever been a straight play there. It opened only two weeks before we did. We didn't have mikes, and the acoustics were dreadful!"

    There were two up sides. It was during that run that Murray first met Seldes, who says she still vividly remembers his performance. Murray was impressed with her pedigree. Seldes is the daughter of journalist/author/editor Gilbert Seldes and a niece of journalist George Seldes. And Murray, who's now a United States citizen, fell in love with New York.

    "I'd never known a place as exciting," he gushes. When the tour ended, he beat a path back New York. "I'd never known a place as exciting, but what really impressed me was the theatre and how people worked."

    He lucked into the Off Broadway hit The Knack, directed by Mike Nichols. And, during his off time, caught as much theatre as possible. "What impressed me was the passion, commitment, and vitality of the actors. By comparison, English theatre was laid back. Over there, it was considered bad form to get too intense, and I was an intense actor. By that time I was completely hooked on New York, which was a place where everyone seemed to be intense. I was, and knew this was where I wanted to be."

    He hasn't worked in the U.K. in almost 15 years. "I very much consider myself an American actor. I've lived here for nearly 40 years. I've always felt tremendously comfortable professionally and personally here. Maybe it's because I was raised in South Africa, which has a similarity in outlook. Then, too, it's a big open country. Not a little island [like the U.K.]."

    In 1965, Murray made his Broadway debut in Bill Naughton's All In Good Time, "starring the distinguished Donald Wolfit in a company that was mostly English, but which had a lot of good American actors: Richard Dysart [later known for his portrayal of Leland McKenzie on TVs L.A. Law] and John Karlen [Tyne Daly's husband on Cagney and Lacey]. It got wonderful notices, except in the Times. So we closed. It deserved much better."

    He returned to the U.K, where he worked on the West End and in the regions and ruminated on coming back to America. It took three years. The vehicle was Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

    "That was an extraordinary experience," says Murray, who was nominated for a 1968 Tony for Featured Actor along with cast members Paul Hecht and John Wood. "We won the Tony [for Best Play] and became a cult hit." In his book The Season, William Goldman called it the first snob hit. "None of us realized it was going to be that popular. Least of all, [producer] David Merrick, who only took the theatre for three months. But it was the 60s and every kid who was possibly going to Vietnam identified with these two almost nameless, background people who are used by the government. We ran for a year."

    Did the Tony nomination secure his future? "Yes," he replies. "Let's say, ëOf course, it did!'" he adds thoughtfully. "More than anything, it was the play and the incredible reviews."

    Some highlights of his career are: Hugh Leonard's 1978 Tony-winning Best Play Da, in which he played Charlie, the son; Sleuth; Noises Off; Off Broadway in Travels with My Aunt, opposite Jim Dale; a scathing performance in a revival of The Entertainer, which co-starred Jean Stapleton; the homosexual priest in LCT's Racing Demon; and, two seasons ago, when he did everything but eat the scenery as Puritan deputy gov Danforth [who presides over the witch trials] in the Broadway revival of The Crucible.

    "Noises Off was memorable," observes Murray. "Being farce, it wasn't considered as great to work on as Rosencranz, but I'd put it right up there. I had the opportunity to do Da again at Irish Repertory [where he has directed] and I jumped for the opportunity. A few years had passed and I played the title role."

    Is it easy to be directed when you've directed? "Much easier," he notes, "particulary if it's a director I trust. I happily say, ëI want to be directed. Govern me', as Tarleton says in Misalliance. When there's a director who's nervous, I assure them it's a dream to be directed. Frankly, I could no more direct myself in a play than fly! As a director, you cannot have your ego get in the way of your concern for the actors. You have to be their nurse, lover, daddy, all those things. An actor has to have an ego, but a director shouldn't -- not that sort of ego."

    He explains that being an actor makes him a "dream" director. "I treat the cast as I would want to be treated." There is something he can never see himself doing. "I could no more direct myself than fly. Certainly not in theater. As a director, you cannot have your own ego as an actor get in the way of your concern for other people's egos. You have to look after them, be their nurse, the lover, the daddy, all those things. An actor has to have an ego, but a director shouldn't -- not that sort of ego anyway.

    Murray enjoys going back and forth between his two personas. "I seem to do it in batches," he explains, "several in a row, then I come back to acting." What makes the time right? "I'll read a play or, perhaps, discuss one in which I'm too old to do a particular role, and the juices start to flow. My favorite directing is a play by, say, Shaw, because you have so much intelligence to deal with. The secret to having fun is to get people who can understand and speak it well."


    Thursday, October 09, 2003 at 6:36 PM | Item Link

    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

    The last five columns written by Ellis Nassour:

    07/02/2010: Summer in the City: Fireworks on the Hudson Launch a Season with Plenty to Do and See

    06/13/2010: The 64th Annual Tony Awards Celebrating Broadway Achievement

    06/10/2010: Tony Honoree Marian Seldes: Grand Duse of the American Theater

    06/08/2010: Starry, Starry Nights [Hopefully] with the Bard; Broadway by the Year Celebrates 10th Anniversary; Old Flames Reignite [Onstage]; Summer in and Out of the City; Stars Rally for Dancers; Cast CDs and Re-releases; New to DVD

    05/21/2010: Patti LuPone Hosts Sunday's Drama Desk Awards; A Starry, Starry Season; Tovah Feldshuh, Sherman Brothers Honored; Broadway By the Year Season Finale

    For a listing of all features written by Ellis, click here.