In the pictorial dictionary of the English language, you’ll find Barbara Barrie in the definition of “imp.” Even if you can’t place her name, you will recognize her from countless appearances on TV and in films; if you are a theatergoer and can’t place the name, shame on you.
Barrie made her Broadway debut in October, 1955 at the Booth Theatre in The Wooden Dish, a piffle of a comedy that shuttered after 12 performances. Sixty-two years later, she is back at the Booth in Joshua Harmon’s Significant Other, playing Helene, the voice of wisdom and widowed grandmother of Gideon Glick’s Jordan Berman, a single gay man searching for love while all his best women friends find it.
In the play’s most poignant passage, the depressed Jordan points out that even grandma has spoken rather relentlessly about the various ways of committing suicide.
“Oh, that’s just talking, I would never do anything,” Helene tells Jordan with matter-of-fact impishness. “I just like knowing my options.” She understands that for all the dramatics, her grandson’s pain is real, and deep, and awful. “It’s a long book, Jordan,” Helene says. “You’re in a tough chapter. And you don’t know when this chapter will end and the next one will start. But the book is long. It’s a long book.”
Barrie knows better than most about long books, and too-brief runs, and the pain of invisibility when the heart is so full. Her career has taken her from the University of Texas to a classic show-girl apartment share in the colonnaded apartments across the street from the old Astor library.
“I was living downtown opposite the Public Theater,” she told me over dinner one night at Sardi’s. “Four girls, we had the ballroom apartment. Rundown, nobody lived down there then, bums in the hall. We had such a good time.” That included a couple of seasons working under John Houseman at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut. Who else was in that tortured, too-short-lived company?
“Oh my God, you won’t believe it when I tell you,” she said. “Fritz Weaver, Morris Carnovsky, Will Geer, Severn Darden, Ellis Raab, Richard Waring, Inga Swensen, Amos Olsen, John Colicos, Bill Hickey, June Havoc, Nancy Wickwire, Nancy Marchand and Sada Thompson.”
Katharine Hepburn got her the job.
“Katharine Hepburn told Houseman, I auditioned this girl, she’s not going to be on stage with me because she’s too much like me, but you should hire her. And she sent me to meet John Houseman and he hired me, and I spent two glorious years at Stratford.
“Of course, they’re almost all gone,” Barrie said. “Inga Swenson is still alive and still gorgeous, in California. We did Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream together. That company! I spoke at Fritz Weaver’s memorial service; he did Hamlet and always felt he didn’t quite get it, but he did get it. He was a very American Hamlet.”
In 1970, Barrie was back on Broadway in the legendary Stephen Sondheim/George Furth Company, Sondheim’s first collaboration with director Harold Prince, a groundbreaking musical in which Barrie had the only non-singing role.
“It changed my life, being in Company,” she said of the show, which earned her only Tony nomination. “I didn’t think I was going to be an actress. I trained to be an actress, but I had a boyfriend here and I came to be here with him. He had graduated the year before and was already in a Broadway show. I got a job in an office, did great shorthand, wonderful typing, and that’s how I earned my living for awhile.”
Barrie was married to producer and writer Jay Harnick from 1964 until his death in 2007, putting them at the center of the Broadway world that included Harnick’s brother Sheldon, the lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof, and the universe revolving around Prince. Their son, Aaron, also is on Broadway this season as a lead producer of the musical adaptation of Amélie.
This week, after struggling at the box office, the producers announced the April 23 closing of Significant Other, a very good play that might have had a fighting chance in a different season or in a more forgiving environment. That means there are only a few more opportunities to see an imp whose impish charms are burnished by experience to a penetrating glow. You shouldn’t pass up the chance.