During rehearsals for Jeffrey, at the greatly missed WPA theater on 23rd Street, I went through many drafts of the script, and our insanely gifted cast did whatever the director, the wonderful Chris Ashley, and I would ask them to do. The sublime Harriet Harris was playing all the show’s female roles, including that of Mother Teresa. I had included Mother Teresa in the play for the following reason: in real life, I had once bought an antique chair in a shop on Bleecker Street, a chair which I didn’t need and could ill afford. As I was carrying the chair home, Mother Teresa walked right in front of me. At first I assumed I was hallucinating, but then I found out that Mother Teresa had not only founded a nearby convent, in the West Village, but that she was having her cataracts removed at the even more nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital (which has recently been torn down.) I still assumed that God had placed Mother Teresa in my path, to admonish me for buying that unnecessary chair.
So Harriet was playing Mother Teresa in Jeffrey. She was also playing Debra Moorhouse, a New Age evangelist and motivational speaker. I’d once attended a session at Town Hall led by just such a woman, because I’d been told that her congregation included many male and female models. This had turned out to be true, and I recall watching one gorgeous young woman writing down everything the evangelist said in a tiny notebook, and then depositing the notebook in her tiny Prada backpack.
In one of Jeffrey’s final scenes, a leading character named Sterling has just lost his handsome young boyfriend to AIDS. Sterling is sitting in the waiting room at St. Vincent’s, shell-shocked. I had Debra Moorhouse enter and try to comfort Sterling, in her own demented way. When Sterling told her that his boyfriend had just died, Debra took his hand and said, “Oh no. Oh no. Was he – attractive?” Debra became more outrageous, until finally, another actor, now also dressed as Mother Teresa, entered and spritzed Debra in the face with a bottle of seltzer, vaudeville-style. I hasten to add that, while Harriet’s performance was impeccable, I eventually realized that Sterling needed to grieve, without Debra’s lunacy.
But while the scene was still in the play, we rehearsed spritzing the noble Harriet in the face. To test this moment, Harriet wore what was either a rain poncho or a garbage bag. I hadn’t realized that bottled seltzer, with a spigot, is painfully powerful. But Harriet bravely stood against a wall, while we drenched her with seltzer and just about peeled her skin off.
I salute you, Harriet Harris, for your genius and your unstinting courage, in the face of seltzer.