In 1962, when Estelle Parsons made her Cherry Lane Theatre debut in Mrs. Dally Has a Lover, a strip club was in business next door, and the thump-thump-thumping of music could be heard through the thin, shared wall during performances. On the evening of Oct. 6, 2014 -- and on that same stage -- Parsons enjoyed recounting this and other morsels, as well as replaying a scene from that first show, during the theater's 90th anniversary celebration.
Parsons, who, later in the evening, would receive Cherry Lane's Visionary Award, also recalled leaving a five-year stint as a personality on The Today Show to make $32 a week for the part of Mrs. Dally, a 39-year-old adulteress. Parsons mused that she was only 35 and thought at the time that playing a character four years older was "a real challenge."
Before the performances began -- quick scenes from some of the seminal plays that had been staged here over the last 10 decades -- Judith Ivey, Richard Kind, Tyne Daly and others graced the small lobby's short but triumphant red carpet while Bill Pullman searched for the green room.
Inside the smaller studio theater, where the strip club had been, a few dozen guests mingled and drank wine. Andy Sandberg, a writer, director and Tony Award-winning producer, cited the need these days for either "a venue, money or cast" to even hope to get a show produced, while his former Yale classmate Jen Jamula, a co-founder of Blogologues, the comedy troupe that performs blog posts -- verbatim -- nodded in resigned agreement.
At show time, ushers led guests inside the 179-seat main theater. As Parsons was ferried through, she glanced around. "This place has been all redone," she said, mostly to herself.
To start, Ivey and Marin Ireland performed a scene from the 1924 play The Way of the World, by William Congreve. Then Israel Horovitz introduced Lynn Cohen, who appeared as Winnie in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, which in 1961 had its world premiere at Cherry Lane. But first, Cohen moved a music stand out of her way. "I'm a woman, so I rearrange things," she said. "If I didn't know better, I would say Beckett was a woman."
Next, Dule Hill and Pullman played a scene from Edward Albee's The Zoo Story. "If you are in an Edward Albee play," Pullman said before his performance, "you say Edward Albee is the greatest playwright of all time. ... If you're in an Israel Horovitz play, you say Israel Horovitz is the greatest playwright of all time."
Judith Light introduced Lewis Black, who had performed his show Black Humor: The Comedy of Lewis Black on the main stage in 1998. "Lewis scowls and the world scowls with him," Light said, and then, without further ado, "Back for a five-minute run at the Cherry Lane Theatre, Lewis Black!"
"It's great to be back in the theater, because the theater has been so fucking good to me," chided Black, who later recalled the time in the late '90s when Angelina Fiordellisi, then the newly ensconced (and still current) artistic director, offered him a show and he was "ecstatic."
F. Murray Abraham, wearing a satin Yankees jacket, performed with Jay O. Sanders a scene from David Mamet's Duck Variations. In the early days, he told the audience, you could see through the back courtyard to the little house belonging to one of Cherry Lane's founders, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. A woman who lived upstairs, he continued, didn't like the goings-on and stomped on her floor -- the theater's ceiling -- as a precursor to the strip club reverberations that would be felt in later years.
Before Parsons and the actor David McElwee began the last performance of the night, she told the story of Arlene Francis, who took Mrs. Dally Has a Lover to Broadway in 1965.
"She was a big star," Parsons said, and then thought better of it. "Well, she was a star." Francis' Great White Way production, however, was a flop. "People wanted to see it down here, with someone they didn't know."
Parsons then set the scene she and McElwee would perform, where Mrs. Dally and her teenage lover sit talking while she sews on the buttons she had ripped off his shirt earlier in the "heat of passion."
The 86-year-old Parsons stopped and thought for a moment about what she had said, then giggled and gave the audience a much-appreciated, happy lament: "Those were the days!"