Thursday, February 21, 2013 9:12 am
Holland Taylor plays 'the thrill of a lifetime'
By MARK KENNEDYAP Drama Writer
What she wants is gin and vermouth, preferably in a three-to-one proportion, "as they were designed." Oh, and not stirred. She wants them "shaken brutally."
"I, of course, am doing it right," she says with equal parts humor and certainty, and perhaps a dash of brutal honesty. Like the cocktail, she's refreshing and charming.
Both of those attributes are lately being poured into a role Taylor calls "the thrill of a lifetime" - playing Ann Richards, the late Texas governor and hero to the left.
Taylor, perhaps best known for playing the feisty grandmother on the CBS sitcom "Two and a Half Men," wrote and stars in "Ann," a one-woman play about Richards that debuted on Broadway this month after years of traveling and reshaping.
"I was compelled to write the play, and I was compelled to have it run my life for almost six years," Taylor says over a bunless burger before the appearance of said martini. "I mean, I literally have almost no life. I left everything behind for some later day."
The silver-haired, silver-tongued Richards, a one-term governor, was a longtime champion of women and minorities in government. She died in 2006 at age 73 after battling cancer.
She electrified the 1988 Democratic National Convention with a keynote speech in which she joked that Republican presidential nominee George H.W. Bush had been "born with a silver foot in his mouth."
Richards' death left Taylor mournful for a long time, and the actress was mystified about why. They had met once, but it was as if a favorite aunt had died. "Then I realized she had had an effect on me that was really profound," the Emmy Award winner recalls. "That's when I started to want to do something creative with it."
Taylor considered making a TV movie or a film but none of it was gelling until one day driving to work, it struck her: a stage play. Taylor pulled her car over to the side of the road and the details of how it would work washed over her. She speaks about it in almost religious terms.
"I feel like a vessel," she says. "I AM the vessel."
Taylor, born and raised in Philadelphia, has taken the work to various theaters in Texas, as well as Chicago and The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It has eaten up her life, and no detail of Richards' life is left to chance.
The actress and first-time playwright - "a first and last-time playwright, baby, I can promise you," she insists - spoke to people who knew the former governor, watched TV clips, listened to private recordings to perfect the accent and routinely emails former Richards associates to ask if a piece of proposed dialogue sounds right.
She's studied what kind of rock was used in the Texas governor's mansion. She's asked how Richards would have pronounced the name of the city of Brownsville. She's even managed to reproduce the style of doodles that Richards left on her office blotter.
"My curiosity about her as a person has not ebbed at all," she says. "It never lets up and it never lets up because it's become passionately interesting to me."
She recently realized the apartment that producers rented for her near Lincoln Center happens to be in the same building where Richards lived after she left office. "They didn't know that but I knew it," she says with a wink.
Benjamin Endsley Klein, who directs the play, credits Taylor with sharing many of the attributes that Richards was known for, namely perseverance, humor and a never-say-die attitude.
"I admire her hugely because we all know so many people in this world that say, `I've got this idea for this thing.' And then you see them again in two years and they say, `I've still got this idea for this thing.'" he says. "She's created this out of thin air practically."
The 70-year-old Taylor has built an eclectic career on stage, film and TV. Her film credits include "Baby Mama," "Legally Blonde," "The Truman Show," "George of the Jungle" and "To Die For." On TV, she was in "Bosom Buddies" with Tom Hanks and had memorable roles on "The Practice" and "The L Word." Her Broadway credits include "Butley," "Breakfast With Les and Bess" and "Moose Murders."
Taylor and Richards crossed paths at a 2004 lunch in New York with columnist Liz Smith, a mutual friend of both women. Taylor, initially a little peeved that Smith was bringing another person to lunch, was soon won over.
"Ann Richards, the minute you meet her, is one of those people who looks at you like you are the only person on the planet. And if there were any other people, she didn't want to talk to them anyway because she only wanted to talk to you," Taylor says.
While obviously a fan, she insists her portrayal of Richards will show "all of it" - "how difficult she was, how changeable, how strong, how weak, how thin-skinned, how frail, how courageous, how terrified."
Of the future, she's unsure. If "Two and a Half Men" asks her back to tape episodes, it will have to accommodate her new stage show. Perhaps she'll take "Ann" on a tour; she'd like to go back to Texas with it.
"I put that wig on and I'm ready to rock `n' roll," she says.
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