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Friday, September 10, 2010

Deeper Dish with Austin Pendleton

Austin Pendleton has done it all in his career of over 40 years. He's appeared in such films as Skidoo (1968), Catch-22 (1970), The Front Page (1974), The Muppet Movie (1979), Starting Over (1979), Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990), Home for the Holidays (1995), The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), A Beautiful Mind (2001), and my personal favorite - 1972's What's Up, Doc?, in which his character, Frederick Larrabee, ends up with Madeline Kahn's Eunice Burns. Austin has also starred on many television series, including Love, American Style, Good Times, Homicide: Life on the Street, The West Wing, Oz, and two episodes of St. Elsewhere as Mr. Entertainment, a singing hospital janitor.

The talented actor has achieved some of his greatest acclaim for his work on stage, having appeared in the original 1964 Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof as Motel the tailor. He won an Obie Award and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance for The Last Sweet Days of Isaac (1970), and he was nominated for a Tony Award for his direction of the 1981 Broadway revival of The Little Foxes. Some of his other Broadway credits include Grand Hotel, The Diary of Anne Frank, and the 1975 musical, Goodtime Charley, in which he was Joel Grey's standby.

Austin is also a playwright (Uncle Bob, Orson's Shadow), and he currently teaches acting at HB Studio in New York. And in 1979, he began an artistic relationship with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company when he directed Ralph Pape's Say Goodnight, Gracie, starring Joan Allen and John Malkovich. He has since become an ensemble member of Steppenwolf, where he is now directing Lisa D'Amour's new play, Detroit, featuring Kevin Anderson and Laurie Metcalf. I am so honored to have Austin Pendleton here on the Dish to discuss his fascinating career and answer a few pop culture questions.

Let’s begin with Detroit. What is the play about?
Well, it’s not about Detroit in the sense that it’s not about cars. It’s two suburban couples – one of whom has just crashed their way in.  They’re squatters essentially in an empty house in a "first-ring" suburb of a declining American city. So the title, Detroit, is meant to suggest that kind of a city, and it’s never referred to in the play.

Is it a comedy or a drama?
It’s got a lot of things in it that are funny, but underneath it all it’s kind of a drama.

What made you want to direct the play?
I was very struck with it when I read it. I thought I would love to do this. I don’t ever know what makes me want to direct a play or not direct a play. You just respond to it or not – and then once you start to work on it, you spend a long time trying to find why you wanted to direct it. It’s a gut response.  And also the casting of ensemble members like Laurie Metcalf and Kevin Anderson and people like that.

Do you have a favorite play that you would love to direct someday?
There are certain plays I would like to direct, but it would depend on where I was directing it and with whom. Like some of the great Shakespearean plays if you could put together a cast that I thought could maybe do it.

I have to ask about What’s Up, Doc?  How did you get the role of Frederick Larrabee?
My agent at the time, Charles Kerin, submitted me for it. And Peter Bogdanovich apparently said, “Oh no, I think he’s wrong for it,” but Charles just pushed him. And so finally Peter saw me. I’d met Peter very briefly on the film I did before that, Catch-22, which was filmed out in the desert in Mexico. I was only on the movie for a couple of weeks acting opposite Orson Welles, and Peter was on the set interviewing Orson on an audio tape. These turned out to be a bunch of interviews that went on over many years. Some of them were in Mexico on that film and others were in other places that Orson was – Orson was always all over the world. So Peter and I had met and then two years later he was suddenly a very hot Hollywood director. He had just made The Last Picture Show, and now he was selected to direct this film with Barbra. So he had an impression of me from my role in Catch-22, which was not really quite like any of the roles in What’s Up, Doc? Because Charles just kept insisting that he see me, he did. And then when we met and talked in his office, he had an idea of what part I might read for. At that point they were changing the script from the one by Benton and Newman – who had just come out with Bonnie & Clyde a couple years before – to the script they ended up with by Buck Henry. So Peter called me back into read as it turns out from the Benton-Newman script – and then he gave me the job. It was very surprising. I didn’t expect to get it.

What is your fondest memory of working on the movie?
The camaraderie among the cast. That kind of comedy is very hard to do. And Peter did it with a lot of master shots. There are not a lot of close-ups in the movie, and all the group scenes he sort of did in long, fluid master shots so everybody had to get everything right or you couldn’t use the tape. And you couldn’t fix it in a close-up. He also wanted that kind of very fast-paced dialogue from those old Howard Hawks comedies from the ‘30s. So you’d have these group scenes where everyone’s talking very very fast and we would have to do them over and over. And each time you dreaded that you were going to be the one to make a mistake and everybody would have to do it over again. So that had two effects. The first effect was that it was great for the film – it gave it a real pace and liveliness. And the other effect was we all kind of bonded from those group scenes.  We would all sit around between shots on the set and just talk and talk and that was wonderful.

How was it working with Barbra Streisand?
Oh, I love her, I love her.

And Madeline Kahn?
I’ve done two movies with Barbra, and I think I did four with Madeline all within 10 years. They were both wonderful. Everyone got along on What’s Up, Doc? All that was very nice.

According to IMDb, you were considered for the role of Fredo Corelone in the 1972 film, The Godfather. Is this true?
This is the first I’ve ever heard of that. I acted in a play around that time with John Cazale at the Long Wharf. It was a production of the O’Neill play, The Iceman Cometh – but that’s the closest I ever came to The Godfather.

Now let’s discuss a few more of your television, film and stage performances over the years. What’s the first thing that pops into your mind about:

Fiddler on the Roof?
First of all from day one you just knew it was going to be a great musical.  We encountered a lot of trouble on the road with it – and we weren’t well-received. Well, we were by the audiences but not by the critics. But you just knew it would turn out to be a great musical – and it did. So there was that feeling, which is extraordinary. And then Jerry Robbins – he really pulled it through and worked very hard on it. Eight weeks of rehearsal in New York, eight weeks on the road. That was before you had to have a day off.  Sixteen weeks and I think he only gave us three days off. But he used that time.  He kept working on it and refining it and trying things out – and he gradually crystallized it. That was pretty exciting to see him do that. He was a giant.

And I think Zero Mostel set me free as an actor. He never gave the same show twice, and a number of the ones he did give were breathtaking. He would go on these wild tangents – they weren’t tangents though - they were different ways of doing the scenes.  I loved him. God, I loved that guy. And again that whole cast – because we had that very long and grueling rehearsal period and that out-of-town tryout where we were besieged. The reviews were pretty bad. And just every day rehearsing and working for 16 weeks – that was the way that group bonded. You bond when you’re all engaged together in a difficult task that seems to be worth something, which is true of What’s Up, Doc? and Fiddler.

The 1967 Broadway revival of The Little Foxes?
That was great. Anne Bancroft and George C. Scott and E.G. Marshall and Margaret Leighton and Beau Richards – and that play is so brilliant. It was very exciting – and very tense again. All these experiences that I’ve been describing were very tense because the projects were very difficult. And also the people working on them were – I don’t want to say perfectionists exactly – but they were not easily satisfied. So it was all very tense – but I loved going to work.

Oh, that was difficult. The best thing that came out of that was sort of a friendship with Otto Preminger. At first I thought, “He’s impossible.” His film just before that – Hurry Sundown – had been a critical disaster.  Jane Fonda was in that, and when we were beginning to shoot Skidoo, I read an interview where she said that she thought Hurry Sundown had been her best work in film so far, and I thought, “She’s clearly an intelligent woman. How could she think that anything she would do under this director would be her best work?” Then I began to find out – once we got down into the scenes – that he was a real director of actors. A few years ago in New York at the Film Forum, they had a Preminger retrospective, and I went to see virtually all of them – like Anatomy of a Murder and a bunch of little noir films that I didn’t even know he’d done in the late ‘40s. And people in those movies are good – including people who aren’t always that good. He had his way of going about that – he was ruthless. During the first week or so on the set, I was calling my agent, Deborah Coleman, and I’d say, “Deborah.” “What, darling, what’s the matter?” “You got to get me out of this movie.” And she’d say, “It doesn’t work that way.  You can’t just say, ‘I quit.’  You got a contract.” “But it’s going to destroy me.” “Well, dear, I’m sure it will be fine.” What could she say?  She’s a very sweet woman. Then one day after I flubbed something up, he said – in front of the crew and everyone – “You’re an amateur,” and I said, “I know, I know.” He didn’t expect me to say that. And I meant it. By this point I thought, “I just don’t know what to do in front of a camera. I can’t do anything right.” He said, “No no”, and then he began to teach me about film acting. And to this day 80% of what I know about film acting, I learned from him.

Then after that – at the end of a day’s work – he would invite a select few to come into his office on the Paramount lot. He’d pour little shots of vodka and we would just sit and he and everybody would discuss politics. And, of course, he was a very fierce and active liberal, and he was brilliant with his observations about everything. And I would just sort of hang out in there. And then when we were all back in New York – where he lived and I lived – he’d invite me over to his house for screenings – including one of Skidoo. He was charming. He could be very cruel, but like a lot of such people, they’re also capable of being unusually kind. When I was in a play, he would come see it. And he kept wanting me to be in some other film of his after that, but he never came up with a part that he thought I was right for.

So that’s the main thing I remember about that film.  And then, of course, it was a disaster when it came out - and almost immediately it also turned into a cult film – and it still is! Frankly, I don’t quite understand why – except that there’s no movie remotely like it. I saw it again a little over 10 years ago at a film festival in Dallas. They wanted me to come down because they couldn’t get anyone else so I went. And the category it was in was called “Films We Love to Hate”. And I thought wait a minute, they didn’t tell me that! And then I was interviewed in front of an audience at a midnight showing. They were asking me about Otto Preminger. And I said he was one of the great film directors and everybody laughed out loud. Then I started to list a number of movies that are remarkable and have some range. And at every one I said, they would laugh. “Wait a minute,” I said, “This is not being fair.” “Yeah, but Skidoo - we hear it’s terrible.” And I said, “Every film director who’s made a lot of movies has made a couple that don’t work – and by the way Skidoo does have a following.” So then I settled down with them to watch the film and I was like, “Oh God, it is terrible. It’s awful.” He was trying for something original and unusual – and he was challenging himself – but he didn’t know how to do it. It just wasn’t his thing.

The Last Sweet Days of Isaac?
That was great. That was written by Gretchen Cryer, who was already an old friend of mine. She wrote the book and lyrics, and the composer was Nancy Ford. We’d known each other at that point for over 10 years, and they wrote this show for me. And we found a producer who found some money, and we did it Off-Broadway. I don’t think anybody thought it would run past opening night. It was this odd little musical, but we all loved it – and then it turned into this big hit. It was very surprising and exciting. I played it 500 times.

The Front Page?
Billy Wilder – what a guy. One day he was directing us in a scene and Carol Burnett said to me, “Do you know he just found out there was a fire in his office in Hollywood and his collection of original paintings by modern artists perished in the fire.” You would not have known. I went over to him and said, “Billy” – and he said, “Well, it happens”. He was quite something. That film is not considered among his great films.  I guess when it came out it was considered out-of-step with the times. The great thing about film is they’re always there and you can always say, “Well, maybe they thought that at the time, but this isn’t so bad.” Skidoo is – but on the other hand, Skidoo is much more original than The Front Page, which was just a remake of The Front Page. It’s very well-shot and acted, but it’s very traditional. I thought it was okay.

Goodtime Charley?  Did you ever go on as Charley?
No, I think they would’ve canceled the show. Joel [Grey] was the reason people were seeing that show, but you have to have a standby – Equity demands it. I was only the standby out of town. On the road they might have put me on because they were constantly changing the show and they needed to perform it. But after we opened in New York and the reviews were not good for the show, they realized if Joel ever missed, they would just have to cancel so they got rid of me and hired someone from the chorus to be his nominal understudy. I remember I had to learn all these dance numbers up in Boston when we were trying out. I was taught them by the assistant to the choreographer, who was indefatigable. I’m not a dancer in the way Joel is so it just took me forever to learn them. I was exhausted.  But I finally learned them all so I could do them at a quarter of the tempo that Joel did them, and I presented them for the choreographer, who then said, “That’s very good, but I’ve just been fired.” So they brought in a new choreographer and I had to learn a whole new set of dances.

But it’s great to be a standby because everybody befriends you. The book writer talks to you, the lyricist talks to you, the director has breakfast with you – and Joel was so great with me. The day I came on board, he took me in to his dressing room in New York and said, “I hope you don’t feel bad about being an understudy. I’ve been an understudy a number of times before I became a star and anything you want to ask me about” – he was great. He was also brilliant in the show. So I had a wonderful time. After that I would ask my agent over the years, “Hey, can I be an understudy in this?” And she’d go, “No! I’m not going to let you keep doing this!” I said, “But I love it!” The chorus takes you out every night for drinks and pours their hearts out. Everyone pours their hearts out. You know everything that’s going on. The book writer, Peter Stone – who was smart as a whip – he would say, “As an actor, what do you think is frustrating about this scene you’re playing before I rewrite it?” So he would solicit advice in a coffee shop next door in Boston. Sometimes I would just sit and rewrite scenes and show them to Peter. And once or twice he would extract a line and put it in the show. And the first time he did that, I was standing in the back of the house and when Joel said the line I had written and it got a laugh – Oh God! That alone would’ve been worth the whole experience! Because it was the first time I had ever heard a line of mine on the professional stage. It didn’t get laughs after that, however. Finally it was taken out. But just that one moment you know.

The Muppet Movie?
That was rough. I had just had this catastrophic season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that all but ended my stage career in New York. It took years to put it back together. There are still great areas of New York theater where I can’t seem to get in the door. I did three plays in a row and got slammed mercilessly, so all of a sudden I couldn’t get auditions in theaters in New York. I was a wreck – and then I got this call about The Muppet Movie.  But the director I think was having a really difficult time on the film. And then a year later it comes out and it’s this sweet little movie. I thought, “I can’t believe this movie has come out of that set.” But it reunited me with Charlie Durning – almost all my scenes were with him. He’d been in Fiddler on the Roof on the road, but then his part was cut. But we got to know each other really well when we were in Detroit with Fiddler. Now I was being reunited with him and that was great. We would do these all-night shoots on the studio lot, where I’m driving him around, and we would just catch up on our lives.

Starting Over?
At the end of The Muppet Movie, I was at the airport and I called Charlie and said, “It was so great working with you again. So are you going to be in New York?” He said, “Yeah, I’m coming in to do the new Pakula movie. In fact, I think there might be a part for you in that. Get your agent to call.” So I did and my agent called – all because of a phone call to Charlie Durning. So then I auditioned for [Alan] Pakula – and it seemed to go okay but I didn’t hear anything. Then I get a call that he would like to meet with me again. So I went in and he said, “Why do you want to be in this movie?” “I want a job” – what are you supposed to say? It’s not like I was selecting my films. He said, “I know it’s a job, but why are you drawn to this?” So I said, “You want the truth – I think All the President’s Men (which he had directed a few years before) has more wonderful performances in it than almost any movie I’ve ever seen. And I’m just intrigued to know what happens.” I thought, “If this doesn’t sound like somebody sucking up to get a job, I don’t know what does – but it’s the truth.” So he said, “Okay, thank you. That’s interesting – but this part is just an ordinary person and you play all these crazy, eccentric roles. I don’t know why you would want to do this?” And I said, “Actually that’s another reason. I don’t want to just play those roles.” Then he called me back a couple of weeks later to read again – this time with Burt [Reynolds]. And I got the part.

Alan would do these 25 takes and change the direction on every take so finally you did not know what you were doing. And that was his aim. He just wanted you to dissolve into behavior. It was an exhausting and slightly frightening way of working, but really kind of thrilling. In fact, it sort of influenced the way I teach acting. Then I didn’t see him again after that until three weeks before he died many years later.  He and his wife Hannah were in a restaurant at a birthday party for a mutual friend of ours, and we ended up across the table from each other. We had this long, long talk and I had the chance to tell him how his way of work had really changed my whole way of thinking and going about acting – either directing actors, acting myself or teaching. And I’m glad I had that opportunity to tell him that. That was 20 years after we shot the film – and then I read three weeks later about his freak accident. He told me that night about the film he was about to do – adapted from that book about FDR and Eleanor during the war. It was by that marvelous historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.  He was very excited about that book – and he was on his way out to Long Island to work all weekend on the screenplay when he was killed.

St. Elsewhere?
That was great. That show was conceived and produced and often directed by Bruce Paltrow, who was a friend of mine. I know his wife, Blythe Danner, very well – we worked together a lot at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. But before all that, I ran into Bruce and Blythe at the Sunset Marquis in L.A. when we were making What’s Up, Doc? And he said, “I’m going to write a TV pilot for you”, and then a few years later he did. It was a TV pilot [called You’re Gonna Love It Here] with me and Ethel Merman and this kid named Chris Barnes, who had just been in The Bad News Bears. CBS picked it up and they made him change it a lot. They got rid of Ethel, which was a huge mistake, and they took all the edge out of it.

What was the basic premise of the show?
I was a bachelor, Ethel was my mother and Chris was my nephew. And his parents – who were either my brother or sister and their spouse – had just gone to prison for income tax evasion. So they were going to give the kid over to Ethel, but she played a musical-comedy star who was about to go on the road and didn’t want to be bothered with a kid. So they came to me and I said, “I’m not taking him. I’m a bachelor and having a great life.” But finally I said, ”Okay, I’ll do it, but Ethel has to help and come over and sit once in awhile for this kid.” It was really funny. We could’ve had a great time. I really didn’t want to do the remake without Ethel. Bruce wrote it every well, but it wasn’t his original idea. CBS made the show much tamer and more conventional and they said they would pick it up. But then they changed their mind because there was a surprise hit with another TV series called Soap, which was very edgy and became very successful. So then they thought, “This show is too conventional.” I thought, “Why can’t we just go back to the first one with Ethel, which was edgy?” “No no, we’ve already turned that down.” “But you turned it down for the reasons you now would want it.” So that was too bad.

So did they write Ethel’s character out of the remake or get a different actress?
She was completely gone.

So it was just you and the boy?
Yeah, and then I had a girlfriend. I also had a girlfriend in the original pilot who was played by Lynn Redgrave – and she would’ve been a regular.

I would’ve watched it.
Yeah, what was their problem? What did they want? I began then to mistrust that whole scene. And I thought they just treated Bruce horribly – but he went on to fame and fortune.

What has been your favorite acting role?
There are several of them. Tuzenbach in Three Sisters. All my favorite roles have been in theater – except for one film that I did here in Chicago. I played a drug lord – a terrible guy. It’s on DVD, and it goes by the name of either Dirty Work or Bad City. I was sort of the villain in it, and the hero was Lance Reddick, who was on The Wire. When I first read the script, they didn’t say what the role was – and it never occurred to me that they would be offering me that role.  So when the director told me, I said, “Oh God, I’ll do it.” I’ve never had a part like that. I think that was my favorite film role. The other one would’ve been that movie with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward – Mr. & Mrs. Bridge.

You directed Elizabeth Taylor in The Little Foxes.  How was that experience?
Oh, fabulous. She’s so nice – and talented and beautiful. She’s so friendly and funny. Everybody bonds around her. Since she was a little girl, she’s been directed so she just does what you tell her. But she has the craft and the inner technique to go for it. And Maureen [Stapleton], of course, was a great artist. I directed Elizabeth and Maureen directed me. She sort of told me how she wanted her scenes staged – and they were much better ideas than I would’ve come up with.

What is The Austin Pendleton Project?
These two students of mine wanted to shoot some of my classes – sort of a parallel project like the one they did some years ago with Uta Hagen and you see her teaching – it’s a DVD. I felt a little uneasy about this because I’m not Uta Hagen. Then unbeknownst to me, they started going out and doing interviews with Olympia Dukakis, Meryl Streep, Phil Hoffman and Ethan Hawke – people I know and worked with. I didn’t even know they were doing this – I’d sort of vaguely heard about it. And I thought, “Well, this is lovely.” And then they came out here last week and spent a whole day and shot a rehearsal of Detroit and had interviews with those actors. Then they came to a class I was teaching here in Chicago, and they shot that. So they’re putting this thing together. It all sort of evolved from me saying, “Sure, fine”, but I had no idea of the extent of what they were planning to do. I don’t ask that many questions about it. I like these two guys a lot – they’re both very good actors. They brought in a scene to my classroom from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, and it was brilliant. They should shoot that and get themselves some attention. I’d hold the camera.

If you could go back and give your 19-year-old self a wise piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t stress so much. I got to a turning point during my catastrophic season at Brooklyn Academy. I probably learned more about acting in the course of all that than I ever have – just from the degree of the challenges. One of the parts I played was Mark Antony in Julius Caesar with Richard Dreyfuss – a very high profile production – and the crowd was all these NYU students. I felt maybe our reviews weren’t going to be that good – and then I heard they weren’t – so I just didn’t read them. So the next night I went out and performed the play and this NYU student said, “How can you do that after those reviews?” And I said, “Don’t read them is how. If you hear they’re bad, it’s not the same as actually reading them.” Finally, about a year later, I read some of them – “Austin Pendleton looks like he couldn’t summon a headwaiter” and stuff like that. Why read that? The audience doesn’t want to watch an actor who’s depressed by what they read about themselves in the paper. And if it’s a really terrible review, it doesn’t help you in any way. So I sort of began to learn from that. And people would say to me, “The only important thing is the work. It’s not the career.” That was a big turning point in my life. So I would say to my 19-year-old self, “Don’t sweat all that. If you get asked to work somewhere, go there and work. Don’t sweat about where it is or what it’s going to lead to.” In my career very few things have ever led to anything – except maybe 10 years later. Somebody calls and says, “I want you to be in this. I saw you in this movie you made 10 years ago.” That’s how it works with me, so how can you worry about that? It’s totally out of your control. So you get out of the idea of career-planning – and that makes life a lot easier.

I never miss a television episode of:
There never has been such a show. When my daughter was growing up, there were certain shows we would watch – usually on reruns. Family Ties with Michael J. Fox, which was wonderful. And then ER when she was a little bit older – which was brilliant. I like TV – I just never seem to find the time.

Three of my favorite movies to watch are:
I hardly ever watch a movie on DVD or on television. I like to go to theaters to see movies. I associate that with one of the things that got me through my childhood – and I had a good childhood, but still we all have our anxieties. I would go to a movie after school and just get lost in it. And that’s still the way I like to watch them now. So I don’t have movies that I watch over and over again because I don’t have that pattern of watching them on a DVD. 8 1/2 is probably my all-time favorite movie. And a movie I almost always go back to see is Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. I love Gone with the Wind – and I love Orson Welles’ movies and Hitchcock. I just saw Winter’s Bone, which came out a couple of months ago. That’s phenomenal – it’s a wonderful movie. And one called I Am Love – that’s wonderful, too.

What's next for Austin Pendleton?
I’m going to be in a play in New York at this theater called The Pearl that does the classics. They’re doing an Ibsen play called Rosmersholm. An old friend of mine is directing it and she asked me to be in it. Then I’m going to direct Chekhov’s Three Sisters at CSC where a year and a half ago I directed a lot of the same actors in another Chekhov play, Uncle Vanya – Peter Saarsgard, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mamie Gummer and people like that – and a lot of them are now going to be in Three Sisters. Then I’ve written the book for a musical by a composer named Josh Schmidt.  He composed another musical that began here in Chicago and then moved to New York called Adding Machine. And I saw it 14 times. I just couldn’t get over the score – and the whole show. That was directed by David Cromer, who directed a play I wrote called Orson’s Shadow, which also started here and moved to New York. So when this director [Michael Halberstam] came to me and said they were putting together a musical version of the Shaw play, Candida, I said, “Well, that’s interesting.” I don’t think I would’ve taken on the job if it hadn’t been for Josh. So we put together this musical and did it here a year ago at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe. It’s called A Minister’s Wife – and now it’s being done in the spring at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theatre. So Ibsen I’m going to act in, Chekhov I’m going to direct, and then the Lincoln Center production of the musical for which I wrote the script. That takes me to May.

Thank you, Austin, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish. For tickets to Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Detroit (which runs September 9 - November 7), go to or call (312) 335-1650.

For tickets to The Pearl Theatre Company's production of Rosmersholm (which runs November 12 - December 19), go to or call (212) 581-1212. For information on Classic Stage Company's production of Three Sisters (which runs January 12 - February 20), go to And for information on Lincoln Center Theater's production of A Minister's Wife (which begins previews on April 7), go to

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