“Who are Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor?” is not the correct Jeopardy answer to “Most successful married couple onstage together.” Burton and Taylor had already been divorced twice and were into other relationships when they appeared in the 1983 Broadway production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives. Answering with “Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy” would also be wrong—those two were married nearly 52 years and copped prizes in every existing medium, if frequently independently. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee? Nope. They did a few Broadway plays together, but were more often together Off Broadway and in regional theater. The correct answer is “Who are Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne?” Between the early 1920s and their retirement in 1960, Wisconsin native Lunt and London-born Fontanne co-starred in no fewer than 27 Broadway plays.
As theater history demonstrates, married couples’ sharing the stage is not exotic, but it is hardly the norm either. The latest duo to toss its hat into the ring is Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, who star in a Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s 1968 bittersweet comedy, Plaza Suite which begins previews on February 25. They will occupy Suite 719 as three different pairs: a couple trying to save their marriage (Act I), old flames seeing if a spark remains (Act II), and parents desperate to persuade their hysterical daughter to go through with her wedding (Act III).
Married couples’ sharing the stage is not exotic, but it is hardly the norm either.
For Parker, Broderick, and the stage, Plaza Suite will end more than two decades of ships passing in the night. They did appear together in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying back in 1996, but they hadn’t yet formally exchanged vows. And 20 years passed between Parker’s appearance in the 1995 premiere of A. R. Gurney’s comedy Sylvia and a 2015 production that starred Broderick.
No doubt they head into their new project with more on their minds than the convenience of being able to share an Uber to the theater. Playing married couples, they have to be Simon’s couples and not their own, which means guarding against domestic tics. Cronyn warned of this danger in 1986, when he announced that he and Tandy, who had starred together in the Broadway premieres of both The Fourposter (1951) and The Gin Game (1977), would do no more two-character plays. As he told me on one occasion, when he felt insecure onstage, Jessica would feel it at once, and vice versa, and they’d end up falling out of character and becoming two actors married in private life.
Conversely, heightened instincts between married players can lead to stylistic innovations, as when Lunt and Fontanne popularized natural breaks in dialogue, sometimes interrupting each other, other times talking over one another. As always, the key is the experience and discipline of the performers, and it doesn’t hurt that Broderick brings to Plaza Suite a Neil Simon résumé of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and The Odd Couple. In other words, running Simon’s lines in the living room after dinner shouldn’t be all that strange. —Donald Dewey