Last week I had the pleasure of spending about half an hour on the telephone with actress Tonye Patano, interviewing her for an article scheduled to appear in Friday's Metro Herald in Alexandria. This is what I wrote; next Wednesday -- the night before Thanksgiving, go figure -- I will see Tonye in Legends! at the National Theatre in Washington.
The photos above were provided by the National Theatre.An Interview with Tonye Patano, Star of ‘Legends!’
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor
Tonye Patano, one of the stars of the hit comedy-drama, Weeds, on Showtime, will be appearing at the National Theatre in Washington from November 21 through December 3 in a Broadway-bound revival of Legends!, starring Joan Collins and Linda Evans.
The original production of Legends!, which featured authentic legends of the musical theatre, Carol Channing and Mary Martin, played the National Theatre in 1986, but never made it to Broadway. The show’s circuitous (and bumpy) path was chronicled by playwright James Kirkwood (who was also one of the book writers for A Chorus Line) in his memoir, Diary of a Mad Playwright: Perilous Adventures on the Road with Mary Martin and Carol Channing
In an exclusive interview, The Metro Herald spoke with Tonye Patano, who plays “Aretha” in Legends!, by telephone in Hartford, Connecticut, where she is traveling with the show. (It next plays East Lansing, Michigan, before arriving in Washington.)
We began the conversation by noting that I had seen Patano’s movie, Little Manhattan, in a theatre last year – perhaps the only person outside of New York or Los Angeles who had done so.
Writing about Little Manhattan late last year, I said: “A lighthearted companion piece to [Noah Baumbach’s Oscar-nominated] The Squid and the Whale, I can almost guarantee that you haven't seen this movie, which apparently has appeared on only about three dozen screens nationwide. Like The Squid and the Whale, the premise of this movie has divorcing parents (Bradley Whitford and Cynthia Nixon) and a child coming to terms with the new situation (Josh Hutcherson). Here, however, the focus is on the pre-teen's own first love, with an 11-year-old classmate. The best thing about this movie, though, is the way New York City is not just its setting, but a character all its own.”
Patano told me she had not seen the film in a theatre: “I had to wait for the video to come out,” explaining the sparse distribution of the film by saying that “I don’t think they figured out how to market it. You can’t sell to the kids and it’s bittersweet for adults.”
Asked how she came by the role of Heylia James on Weeds, Patano said that she is “one of those people who goes by what comes and what presents itself.
“There was something about the character that spoke to me. I just knew who Heylia was. It’s about her sensibility. She is a strong woman, like the mamas that know how to tell you what they need to tell you, they have a wonderful sense of humor, they rarely cry, they rarely raise their voice. It’s about love.”
In regard to the characters she plays, Patano said, “I like to push the envelope and challenge people. I like to say I’m writing a play called ‘Maids, Whores, and Nurses: May I Help You?’ -- but that’s not who we are. It’s important to tell those stories,” because these women are so much more than the job titles they possess.
“I don’t judge characters,” she said, but “if I can enlighten as I go along, it’s wonderful.”
In regard to Legends!, Patano noted that “the show was written in the 1980s and it’s about its time. The fun is seeing how it holds up or doesn’t hold up. It’s a fluff piece, but it’s about something substantive, too.”
The play, she said, is about impersonations. Like the characters played by Joan Collins and Linda Evans, who are “two down-and-out actresses putting up a false front,” her character, Aretha, “impersonates a maid” so that one of the women can impress the other.
There is a story that, when Legends! first played the National Theatre in 1986, President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan passed up an opportunity to see it because one of the scenes in the play involves drug use, and this was the middle of the era when Nancy was saying, “Just Say No.” Patano said that James Kirkwood’s book about the making of the play, Diary of a Mad Playwright, has stories like this, but more than that, it provides “insight into the playwright, saying more about the process and making the play even more intriguing.”
The point of Legends! is to offer an evening of entertainment, said Patano: “It’s all of a piece – the idea of acceptability and inviting yourself to have a judgment-free, fun evening in the theatre. If you’re expecting Shakespeare or high art, you’ll be disappointed.”
Patano said the tour so far has been fun for the cast as well as those who come to see the play. “It’s been delightful having the audiences – they are so generous and so wonderful. The people who come, get it.”
Noting that Legends! is a project for her between shooting new episodes of Weeds, Patano admitted, “I miss doing theatre. It’s my first love and what I get the most juice out of.”
Asked if she prefers stage work over movies or television, Patano replied, “I love all of it for different reasons. The main reason is that when you’re doing some television, you get to do several performances and other people get to pick what the audience gets to see. Sometimes it even surprises you. What I see and the reaction I get from another actor is different than what director or editor chooses. It’s a lot more collaborative in that way.
“As a creator of your own work,” she added, “it’s interesting to see how someone else might interpret that for you.”
In contrast, Patano continued, “With stage, it is what it is. If you see it from a different seat in the theatre, it’s a different show. If you see it a different night, it’s a different show. The final character in the show is the audience; what they bring to the table affects the show. There is a freedom of ongoing creativity and energy that only happens in that two hours.”
Patano related a story about how one night before a performance, legendary actress Marian Seldes “grabbed my hand and said, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we get to do this every night?’ She said it with such joy, I was thrilled. Even if it’s our worst of days, it’s a blessing.”
The different media – film, TV, and the stage – are “just not comparable. The energy you get is just wonderful. I enjoy the work, period. I enjoy doing all of it.”
We finished up our interview with a question of how Tonye Patano discovered she loved performing. She said both her parents were actors, and in fact they met while doing a show together. But if she were to pick one moment in time that made her aware of her desire to be an actress, it was when “I was 5 years old, in kindergarten, standing up in class, reading Green Eggs and Ham, and I remember the faces of the other children, enraptured. That was the feeling I remember having.” It was then she realized what a gift she had, because “It’s one thing for kids to entertain adults, but it’s another to be able to entertain kids.”
And now Tonye Patano is entertaining kids and adults alike.
Legends!, directed by John Bowab and starring Joan Collins, Linda Evans, Joe Farrell, Will Holman, Ethan Matthews, and Tonye Patano opens November 21 and runs through December 3 at the National Theatre in Washington. Tickets, priced $36.25 to $71.25, are on sale now through Telecharge, at Telecharge.com or by calling (800) 447-7400. Tickets are also available at The National Theatre box office. Group tickets are available by calling (800) 432-7780.
In upper right: Tonye Patano, Ethan Matthews, Linda Evans, Joan Collins © Carol Rosegg
In lower left: Linda Evans, Joan Collins, Joe Farrell, Tonye Patano © Carol Rosegg
The website for the show is www.legendsthecomedy.com.