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THE COOL NAUGHTON

 

By Barry Dougherty
Seated in The Westport Country Playhouse, in Connecticut, one is transported to a different era. The converted barn blankets you in a charming, mellow aura reminiscent of more old-fashioned times. The padded benches instead of chairs and the wooden-slatted balcony that served as a loft in the theater's former days, create a heartwarming atmosphere to enjoy theater as it was meant to be experienced. Taking center stage of all of this theatrical comfort is Friar James Naughton whose accomplishments have taken him not only to this Westport stage but to Broadway and beyond. His gentle countenance melds perfectly with the genteel surroundings.

Naughton's recent project with the Playhouse was directing a production of the Thornton Wilder classic Our Town, starring Paul Newman as the Stage Manager. Joanne Woodward, who serves as the Artistic Director of the playhouse approached Naughton to direct the show, "Last winter Joanne called me up and said, 'You know how much I've always wanted to do Our Town?' She had talked about it for the last several years and she said, 'Well, I think after 9/11, in particular, we would love to see Our Town. I want to do it this season. Paul is going to play the Stage Manager, would you direct it?'" Could anyone refuse such a proposal?


Naughton's Tony Award-winning role in City of Angels

"I read it and I called them back and I said, 'You know, I think there's an opportunity here to do something kind of fun and we could make this thing enchanting and I think Paul should have enchanting.' Enchanting is not a word I use a lot or have ever used a lot but it was kind of the feeling that I thought." The end result, not to overuse the word here, but it was indeed enchanting. Naughton's vision- both in set design and lighting- was simple and graceful, yet innocently haunting. All of these traits that Wilder penned himself Naughton brought to vibrant life onstage.

Bringing the sets to life is one thing, breathing life into the characters is another, one of whom was being played by a superstar, "This was his first time back on stage in thirty-five years. That was not lost on me," explains Naughton. "Paul and I have been very, very close friends since we did the movie Glass Menagerie. We live right down the road, literally five minutes apart. So there's a lot of shared history and there's a trust and I'm glad that he did get somebody whom he trusted and whom he liked and who he knew was not going to bullshit with him about anything. But I was also able to really be frank with him. People ask, 'What was it like to direct him,' well, he wanted direction. Actors love direction. We want to have somebody out there who we trust to ask them, 'What do you think?' I wasn't going to tell him how to act, I didn't need to do that. But I could say to him anything that I was thinking. I knew that he would want to hear it and he knew that I wasn't trying to manipulate him. So we were able to be frank, which was great."

 


Naughton in the CBS series Planet of the Apes he's not the ape, that's Mark Lenard

Naughton is of that breed of director whose roots are grounded in the acting profession, "I think it's a wonderful way for people to come to direct because they understand the whole process and they understand the vocabulary and they know how the actor works. Part of the problem is you get a lot of directors who come in and don't understand the process. They don't have a way to talk about it that is helpful at all. They talk in terms of the end result so they really don't have a clue as to what the process is."

Of course, not every actor wants to direct but for this particular actor it was inevitable, "I always thought that the rehearsal process was the most interesting part of acting. That's where all the discovery took place and I always thought maybe someday down the road I'll direct but I didn't know really how to get there or what that meant. Then, about ten years ago, I started thinking more seriously about it. I think largely because I realized that I was kind of good at figuring some stuff out and I hadn't worked with a lot of directors who were really good or helpful. I worked with some wonderful directors, like Mike Nichols and Michael Blakemore, to name a couple, but there were a lot of directors who didn't really direct, they just sort of created an atmosphere. That's what they were in the business of doing. Or they were just plain obstructionists, they didn't really know what they were doing at all and I don't know why they were directing."

His first go at this directing thing was in Williamstown, with a production of Filumena, the play that had been adapted into the movie Marriage, Italian Style. Sitting in the director's chair was a new angle for this star of stage and screen. "I said to myself, 'I don't know, number one, if I'm going to be bored to death sitting in the chair, watching the other guys do it in rehearsal. If I'll have anything helpful to say to these people. If I'll be able to talk about it in ways that would be helpful and not be reduced to have to show them what I mean. If I'll be able to let go of it and give it to the actors when it's time to do that or if I'll be one of those guys who natters people to death about little, tiny, picky-uni things. I didn't know any of those things. So it turned out that I was not bored at all in the chair. That really there was no detail of the production -from the moment that we began to think about it until it was on the stage, until after it had gone up-that was too small for my attention. I was interested in all of those things," says Naughton who eventually schlepped his director's chair to Broadway.

"When I went to the rehearsal for The Price, which came to Broadway a couple of years ago, that had four very strong actors: Bob Dishy, Harris Yulin, Jeff DeMunn, and Lizbeth Mackay. That was discovery from the moment we started rehearsals. I didn't have a lock on how that thing was going to end. I just thought it would be fascinating to work on it. It was always about the work and it was always about just going forward. And that's a wonderful way to work. It was always very, very relaxed and all about investigation and friendly and positive," says Naughton. I can't imagine this guy losing his cool in any situation and apparently, neither can he. "I can't work under pressure. There are some people in this business, they need to get angry and I think that is antithetical to what we are in the business of trying to do.

 

 

There has to be that kind of mutual trust 'cause we are in a collaborative art form. This isn't a solo shot for anybody. So it's important to keep all those channels open. If people get uptight, if there's that kind of pressure, I think it closes the whole artistic impulse down. It does in me. I loved the experiences of doing these things and the actors did too."

As an actor, Naughton's resume offers insight into his versatility and talent. He won Tony Awards for his performances in the musical Broadway hits City of Angels and Chicago, as well as numerous accolades for his performances in Whose Life Is It Anyway, I Love My Wife, and Long Day's Journey Into Night. Some of his film roles include The Paper Chase, First Wive's Club, and The Good Mother; while his television credits have included Ally McBeal, Brooklyn Bridge, and Who's the Boss, to name a few.

I admit I was hesitant to ask Naughton about one of his TV roles, an ill-fated series that people barely remember, "The wonderful thing about Planet of the Apes -the only wonderful thing about it was that it led to a lifelong friendship with Roddy McDowall. I wasn't dying to do that show but I was living in LA and had a $400 rent payment that was about two weeks overdue, which was a lot of money at the time. I had two children, I was in my twenties and I had said no to this project three times. Finally, another week went by and I said, 'I guess I better say yes.' But with the money I made I bought the house I was renting." Well, at least he had a happier ending than the show did.

Of late, Naughton's passion is music, "For years and years and years I always thought it would be interesting to put together a show, me and a band. I thought about it for twenty or more years and I actually got together with a couple of people in the 80s and started to try to do it but something would come up.-I'd get a job and off I'd go and the band would fall apart. Meanwhile, the sheet music and lists of songs were piling up at home in a drawer," says Naughton of the genesis of his singing career. It culminated with a chance meeting with Friar George Shearing at a Friars Club event in which Shearing invited Naughton to come to his home and jam. "About a week and a half later I get a ninety minute audio tape in the mail that George had made. It was George playing and singing songs for me, ideas that he had for my show. I said to my wife Pam, 'Geez, if George Shearing invested this kind of time, maybe I oughta get my ass in gear and do this thing I've been talking about.'"


Friar James Naughton as "The Gentleman Caller" with Karen Allen in the film
The Glass Menagerie

He got it in gear alright, to the tune of a one-man concert, "Street of Dreams" which was turned into an off-Broadway show presented by Mike Nichols. This past summer his cabaret act headlined at Café Carlyle and a new CD, It's About Time, hit record stores in October.

There's even more up this entertaining road, "I'd like to direct a film too. It's about storytelling and that's interesting to me." You know what's interesting to me? Hanging out with Jim Naughton. He's, well, enchanting.

 

 

 


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