Nestled in the corner of a room on the 22nd floor of the Executive Towers, a massive apartment complex jutting like a sore thumb on the Bronx’s Grand Concourse, a cross-legged woman on a plushy bed pats on foundation. I sit across from her, very nervous, very out-of place as I scribble away on a yellow notepad. We talk, of all things, about Paul Verhoeven’s new film Elle. She thinks it was the most provocative and essential film in years, something every single woman should see. I nod solemnly and agree: it was quite something. She applies more makeup, or “war paint” as she calls it, and the conversation drifts away from movies.
She tells of many extraordinary things. She tells of growing up in a Kentucky coal mining town to a pair of teachers. She tells of going to school with Jim Varney and his crush on her when she was 11 (“Everyone knows him for Ernest, but few knew that the man could do Shakespeare with the best of them…”). And she tells of loss and of love and of a life lived traveling the world, performing everywhere from Greenwich Village to Hollywood. Pulling out a photo album, she shows pictures with Jane Goodall and Ann-Margret. My eyes widen. I cough. I timidly mention that I didn’t actually get her name.
“Brenda Arnold Mattox,” she says, “and tonight I’ll be playing the part of Eleonora Duse!”
“The leading role.”
“Of course. And are you playing anybody?”
“Oh, I’ll be playing the audience.”
“That’s one of the most important parts of all!”
I still feel nervous sitting in this apartment, a repurposed dance studio with a mirror wall to my right and an empty space with 7-8 chairs to my front. Off to the side of the bed, the apartment’s owner, Aan Steele, bustles about her renovated kitchen. Stripping it of all appliances except for a freezer, she transformed the alcove into a make-shift office/library, the bookshelves crammed with Shakespeare and family mementos. She emerges from the curtain separating the rooms, motions towards the lavish spread of food behind us, and cries “Mangia! Mangia!” Not that I need much prompting. I haven’t eaten all day. But the food also gives me an excuse to do something with my mouth other than making a fool of myself.
Slowly, more and more people arrive. A man in blue jeans and a leather jacket introduces himself as Ralph before moving to the generous spread.
“You can always tell the actors apart because they’re the first ones to go for the free food,” he jokes in a booming voice as he grabs a bag of cocoa-covered goji berries.
“Just like how the Marx Brothers would always jump at the sight of free food in the movies,” I say as I cut myself some bologna and mozzarella cheese. He laughs, pops a few more goji berries in his mouth.
Finally she arrives: Gigi Asante, the lovely woman who got me into this mess in the first place. We had met about a week or so earlier at the New York Film Festival revival of Henry Hathaway’s masterful Niagara (1953). I told her I was a film critic; she told me she was an actress. We swapped business cards and a lovely conversation followed where I learned that she had studied improvisational theater from Gene Lane—father of Diane Lane, close colleague of John Cassavetes—and acting and playwriting from Harold Clurman. Suddenly, she asks me a question.
“You know, I’m going to be in a Don Nigro play soon called Eleanora Duse Dies in Pittsburgh. Have you heard of Eleonora Duse?”
“The name rings a bell, but I can’t quite place it.”
“She was one of the most important actresses who ever lived. She worked with Ibsen, D’Annunzio, and inspired Stanislavski.”
“Wow. That’s incredible! Well, keep me in the loop when the play opens. I’d love to see it!”
Flash forward to a week later when I get a text message inviting me to a read-through in the Bronx. Nothing flashy or fancy, just a group of actors coming together for a read-through and recording. I jumped at it. Then immediately regretted it. I’m a writer, dammit, not an actor! This is the dream come true of some starry-eyed thespian trying to make it on Broadway, not a film critic! But I couldn’t say no to a new friend.
Finally the whole cast had arrived. Before we started, Aan invited everyone to slate the camera: everyone introduced themselves, provided their contact information, and sometimes did a little something extra. A young man with a luxurious mane of hair backflipped all over the studio; a woman with a feathery boa performed a short burlesque. And finally, Brenda turned to me and insisted I introduce myself. I politely yet firmly refused.
And so the show began, Brenda sitting on the bed in front while everybody else sat in a row in the audience. As their turn to perform came, they would quietly walk up to the bed, say their lines, and quietly return to their seat. In a way, it reminded me of the hyper-minimalist productions of Shakespeare so beloved by college acting troupes. The play itself was also highly minimal. On the last night of Eleonora Duse’s life, she encounters what may or may not be hallucinations of key figures in her life. A lecherous D’Annunzio barges in, tries to seduce her, and steals all her food. An indignant Sarah Bernhardt—one of Duse’s greatest rivals—bursts out of her closet. A deaf, doddering Ibsen crawls out from under her bed. A bellowing Benito Mussolini crawls through her window and picks a fight with D’Annunzio, his idol/nemesis. And just when the apartment can’t get any more crowded, her younger daughter Enrichetta knocks on the door.
The play itself is only one act long, the perfect length for its madcap antics that build and build like the last third of a screwball comedy. In fact, it reminded me very much of Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936) in that it largely follows a straight man character trapped in an enclosed space—in this case a massive mansion—with a cast of complete lunatics. When we first meet Duse, she’s obviously a bit out of her mind. There’s more than a little of Norma Desmond in this fallen titan as she prepares for a canceled performance while bemoaning her fate of ending up in Pittsburg, “the ugliest town in the world.” But as the play goes on, she desperately tries to play the voice of reason as Bernhardt and D’Annunzio argue whether it was France or Ancient Rome that invented farting and Mussolini “appropriates” a salami for the Italian Social Republic. But far from collapsing into an orgy of nihilistic farce, Nigro ends the play with a touching, understated scene as Duse tenderly encourages a young actress—who also may or may not be a hallucination, may or may not be a younger version of herself—that acting is a worthy career, that there is some value in pursing dreams. It’s a brilliant stroke of emotional catharsis.
But so was the performance. It was a quite an experience listening to actors trained to project for the stage blast out their lines in such a tiny space. Because we were all so confined, the delineation between audience and actors quickly vanished, particularly during later scenes involving almost the entire cast. Bananas were snatched from the buffet as impromptu props, household furnishings were likewise commandeered. It was unlike any theatrical performance I had ever attended.
Before the performance started, I mentioned to Ralph that as a film critic I had become more and more interested recently in how certain audiences responded to certain films. I told how I had recently attended the New York Film Festival’s revival of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) and how the most fascinating part of the screening was how the audience was filled with rich men and women in fancy suits and dresses—the exact same bourgeois element so villainized and assaulted by the characters in the film. This audience of “enlightened,” mostly rich, mostly white New York City liberals would react completely differently to the film than its original European audiences. The same could be same for theater: an audience for a community theater performance of Hamlet in Akron would react totally differently from one in the Globe Theater. And this is the charm and strength of the art: every production is something different, something impermanent.
This is what makes performances like the one I attended so special. This was not the first time Eleanora Duse Dies in Pittsburgh was performed and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. But this was a performance that could never be replicated again. Sans a paying audience, it was performance for the sake of performance, a labor of pure love.
When it was over, Aan invited everyone in front of the camera one last time for one final bow. Once again, I was invited. This time, I was glad to do it.
“My name’s Nathanael and I’m the mean-spirited critic who hates everything.” We all laughed and filed one by one back into the night.