Stage Door Johnny

The show was Noises Off. I had entered a mall contest expecting nothing. Much to my surprise, I won 2 orchestra seats for the farce during the last week of performances for its original cast. Patti LuPone, Peter Gallagher, Faith Prince and Richard Easton were headlining. The cast also included T.R. Knight and Robin Weigart before television made them household names. Oh, and the ever-reliable Edward Hibbert was on hand to droll things up. The critics showered the production and its cast with lots of love and the show was a nice comic hit.

However, there was one particular cast member who managed to walk away with the show. Katie Finneran took home a Tony that year as Brooke Ashton, the slow-on-the-uptake blonde bombshell who wreaks havoc with the worst fitting contact lenses known to man.

A friend and mentor regaled me for years of stories of waiting at the stage door: be it the St. James stage door to meet Ginger Rogers after Hello, Dolly! or the Martin Beck just to get a glimpse of Elizabeth Taylor after The Little Foxes. Well, frankly I grew curious about the experience. I decided that Noises Off would be my first attempt at this long-standing theatre tradition. I made sure to bring a sharpie and eagerly waited outside the Brooks Atkinson with my friend.  There is this ebb-and-flow sense of anticipation that arises every time the door opens. Much to our surprise, we were there the night Neil Patrick Harris was visiting backstage and that threw us for a loop.

Lo and behold, the first actor in the cast to emerge was Ms. Finneran. There weren’t many of us waiting around. It was a Tuesday night and there couldn’t have been more than 20 people milling around. This wasn’t one of those shows where a barricade was necessary. I was standing right by the door and stepped up to her. She then greeted me with a beaming smile. Staggered by her effusive warmth (and those strikingly beautiful eyes), I told her how much I appreciated her performance and  asked if she would sign my Playbill.

Amiable and lovely, she agrees. She goes to sign with my sharpie, and lo and behold it didn’t work. “Ooh, we got a clunker!” she said as she tried to make it write. It wouldn’t. Then she asked around to other theatre patrons milling around if they had a pen she could borrow. They all looked at her nonplussed, as though they hadn’t just seen her in the play. Then, in a moment which I shall never forget, she looks me straight in the eye with determination and says “Hang on.” She then took off her backpack and knelt on the sidewalk in front of me rummaging through her things. I’m standing there not knowing what to do, somewhat panicked as this was all new to me, thinking to myself “There is a Tony-award winner kneeling on sidewalk just for me.”

When her bag failed to produce an implement (this was before the current era where I literally keep 20 or more pens on me), she turned to some suit – it might have been her agent or a producer, whatever, and asks if he has something she can use. He does. She signs for me and chats a bit more with me about the show, about what it was like to win a Tony (something that still seemed to take her breath away) and anything else I can’t remember.

The only other signature I got that evening was from Peter Gallagher, the last to emerge, but the most energetic. He seemed genuinely interested in every single person hanging around, took time made eye contact and that was when my star-struck stammer finally hit, and mostly a result of absorbing the entire experience of all these actors milling about.

I don’t do the stage door experience any more as after a couple years I realized it wasn’t really my thing. But I fondly recall that hot July evening: all I can see is the gorgeous Katie Finneran smiling up at me from the sidewalk. I’ve remained a fan ever since, and am looking forward to seeing her again in Promises Promises (where she’s playing another choice supporting role that will put her on the Tony radar yet again). And, oh yes, I’m still smitten.