Marlo Thomas, who’s headlining Joe DiPietro’s off-Broadway comedy of indiscretions Clever Little Lies, saw several different circles of her life intersect over lunch at La Grenouille, one of the last surviving outposts of formal French dining in Manhattan. Representing the human rights sector were two Glorias, writer and editor Steinem and lawyer Allred. Journalist Diane Sawyer and fake journalist Murphy Brown, aka Candice Bergen, came, along with Thomas’ friends from film, television and theater including writer-director Elaine May, Caroline Hirsch (of Caroline’s Comedy Club), HBO’s Sheila Nevins and composer Lucy Simon.
Some guys were there as well, including Thomas’ husband of 35 years, talk-show host Phil Donahue; fellow talk-show host Regis Philbin; producer Julian Schlossberg; and actors Alan Alda, Tony Danza and Reed Birney. The cast from Clever Little Lies, along with director David Saint and author DiPietro, also attended.
During a Q&A with the show’s team moderated by theater writer Patrick Pacheco, Thomas was asked about the fundamentals of playing comedy. In answering, Thomas paid tribute to both her father and to her friend (and Sawyer’s late husband), director Mike Nichols, who figured prominently in her early career. Thomas auditioned for Neil Simon’s Barefoot In The Park, which Nichols directed on Broadway, thinking it was to replace Elizabeth Ashley. When it turned out to be for the national tour, to the utter shock of her agent she turned it down, explaining that she couldn’t bear the idea of spending a year on the road answering the inevitable questions about what it was like to grow up as Danny Thomas’ daughter.
When the casting call came for the London production, Thomas took a deep breath and called Nichols directly to see if he would consider her for that gig. He said yes, sending her where her lineage was of little concern to critics and theatergoers. Thomas didn’t tell this story, but in answering the question, she said both her father and her mentor lived by the rule that “honesty” is the key to playing comedy. “Everything that Mike ever did had that quality,” she added.
Speaking of comedy, the line that drew the biggest laugh of the afternoon also came from Thomas, who was introducing the friends in the room. Indicating Bergen, another daughter of a famed comedian, Thomas said their bonding had begun with the fact that “I had to watch my father have another family on television — and she had a wooden brother.”
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