Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot

By the stroke of midnight, the actors and audience may already be in the lobby sipping champagne. But in the final hours that lead up to the year 2000, old friends John Felix, Steve Wise, George Kapetan, Vicki Boyle, Pat Nesbit, Ken Kay, Kim Cozort, Tom Wahl, and newcomer Michael McKeever will be exactly where they want to be: on stage together at the Caldwell Theatre Company. Conceived by Caldwell artistic director Michael Hall, the New Year's Eve show was designed to celebrate the theater's 25th season and to give theatergoers a unique way to usher in the new century.

"I started talking a year ago about 'Wouldn't it be nice to spend the 2000 New Year's Eve with actor friends who would love to be together?'" explains Hall. He chose two comedies -- Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy and McKeever's Don't Tell the Tsar -- as the evening's fare. "I made a list of potential plays. The dream play would be The Man Who Came to Dinner, because [with a cast of more than 30] it had roles for all my people, but I kept going back to Black Comedy." The farce, which takes place in a city apartment building during a blackout, is about a young would-be sculptor who tries to impress an art dealer by stealing furniture from an antiques dealer across the hall. It's staged with the house lights on, while the actors "stumble around in the dark," says Hall. "You come into the theater, and there's no lights [on stage]. The audience will think it's a mistake."

By no mistake Black Comedy is paired with Don't Tell the Tsar, a one-act by South Florida playwright/actor/Renaissance man McKeever. The comedy features the antics of four men who want to kill Russian courtier Rasputin. In addition to being similar in tone, the two shows share the requirement of a two-tier set, an attribute that made them even more compatible. But the ultimate appeal, stresses Hall, was that both comedies show off the talents of top-drawer actors who, with the exception of McKeever, have been with the Caldwell for its quarter-century history.

Hall recruited Nesbit and Boyle for a production of Jean Anouilh's Ring Around the Moon during the Caldwell's first season, and both actresses have sustained long-term relationships with the theater. "I think it's amazing that most of my closest friends I have met doing shows at the Caldwell," says Nesbit, who works out of New York. "I think that says so much -- it says a lot for Michael, and it says a lot for the theater."

Actor-director Ken Kay and wife Kim Cozort are likewise familiar faces to Caldwell audiences, having appeared with Nesbit and Boyle in Bus Stop in 1989 and Crimes of the Heart in 1995. Tom Wahl joined this quartet in The Heidi Chronicles and See How They Run during the 1991 season. Felix, Kapetan, and Wise are also Caldwell mainstays and old buddies.

"You hope each show is a bonding experience," adds Nesbit, who appeared most recently in the Caldwell's production of The Chalk Garden. "Sometimes a show works whether the cast bonds or not, but I think if you know each other well it makes the process go quickly. You can talk and work in shorthand."

For Hall this New Year's Eve is not only a chance to celebrate the future but an opportunity to reflect on the past. Recalling that "in 1976, we only had 16 subscribers," Hall sees 25 years of growth and evolution. "More actors now live in South Florida, and the quality is excellent. Peter Haig came here because of us, and Barbara Bradshaw moved here," Hall says, naming two talented troupers. "I still audition in New York," he adds, explaining that, like any artistic director, he wants the best. "But in the old days, I couldn't have cast a season from South Florida."

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Robin Dougherty