The Scene | 2018 Williamstown Theatre Festival Gala: A sign that summer is coming
NEW YORK CITY — Last Monday night, Sonali Weerackody and Josh Swift stood near a side booth at TAO Downtown, surveying the celebrities and Williamstown Theatre Festival staffers and donors chatting in groups throughout the swanky lounge space. Like the rest of the crowd, the couple had traveled to the 22,000-square-foot, pan-Asian restaurant in Chelsea to attend the 2018 Williamstown Theatre Festival Gala, where the summer season was set to be announced. During the cocktail hour preceding the dinner program, the Williams College Class of 1986 graduates wondered aloud what percentage of the guests had ever been to the festival. Weerackody went low. Swift went high.
Between two of the most famous attendees, there was evidence to support both guesses. After posing for photographs, Matthew Broderick said he had never visited the festival, this despite being tapped to host the Williamstown institution's 2012 gala.
"I actually don't know why," he said of why he was involved in that event. The two-time Tony Award-winner perhaps best known for his role in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," and "The Producers," would be skipping the gala's dinner for a meal with his sister and nephew.
"I'm really boring," he quipped.
Broderick will be venturing to Williamstown this summer, as he has been cast in the season's opening play, a world premiere of "The Closet," on the Main Stage.
Three-time Tony Award winner Mandy Patinkin remembers his time at that theater (playing Dr. Thomas Stockmann in a 2003 production of "An Enemy of the People") fondly.
"It was one of the true highlights of my professional career," said the "Homeland" (Saul Berenson) and "The Princess Bride" (Inigo Montoya) star before entering the dining room for dinner.
The cocktail hour had tested the boundaries of a space that featured brick siding and a balcony draped in dark tulle above. With a slew of photographers taking shots of the more prominent guests (Emmy Rossum, Kyle MacLachlan, James Naughton, Annaleigh Ashford and Carmen Cusack among them) on one end of the lounge and a horseshoe-shaped bar on the other, the rest of the gatherers squeezed into the lounge. Williamstown Theatre Festival Artistic Director Mandy Greenfield was also working the room.
"Tonight is a wonderful sign that the summer is coming," she said between conversations.
For Weerackody and Swift, who now live in northern New Jersey but own another home in Williamstown, the night offered an opportunity for them to express their appreciation for Greenfield's leadership of an organization they cherish. The couple, who described themselves as common theater people and regular festival attendees, believe Greenfield is moving the organization's productions in a modern direction that includes diverse casts.
"Mandy's taken it, and she's actually put her heart into it," Weerackody said.
Greenfield's passion for the festival was on full display as she spoke during the dinner program in front of about 300 guests. Before Greenfield took the podium, the opening acts mostly focused on self-deprecation. When MacLachlan was introduced as a Golden Globe winner (for his role on "Twin Peaks), the actor responded with, "Not this year." After some technical difficulties that board chairman Matt Harris joked about during an intervening speech, a video played on two projectors. It showed comedian Lewis Black asking New Yorkers what "WTF" stands for. Many said, "What the f---." Greenfield even repeated the phrase during a short clip.
Her words were far more poignant during her season announcement speech.
"A play reminds us that we're alive, sentient and part of something bigger than ourselves," she said before thanking the festival's 11 year-round staffers for their work and listing the upcoming summer's productions. After opening with "The Closet" (the cast includes Broderick and Jessica Hecht) on June 26, the Main Stage will debut a new musical, "Lempicka" (Cusack) before "The Member of the Wedding" (Tavi Gevinson) closes out the theater's schedule, its last show coming on Aug. 19.
The Nikos Stage season starts with two world premieres: "The Sound Inside" (Mary-Louise Parker) and "Artney Jackson." "Seared" (Steven Pasquale) and "Dangerous House" will follow.
With the news-making part of the evening over, the toast to trustee Gary Levine, the night's honored guest, could begin in earnest. The festival's former managing director is now Showtime's President of Programming, helping produce major TV series. He hasn't neglected the stage in his entertainment career.
"Many of the theater's most important playwrights are also major creative forces on Gary's television work," Greenfield had said during her speech. "He understands the transformative power of storytelling."
Greenfield introduced Patinkin. The actor said that he and Levine have something in common: They've both been married for more than 35 years.
"In Hollywood, that puts us in the top one percent of the top one percent," Patinkin said, a chorus of laughter ensuing.
He started listing some acclaimed Showtime series, such as "Dexter" and "Masters of Sex." (He excluded "Homeland.")
"Some of those shows, I was not allowed to watch," he said before delivering more lines that widely amused.
The guest of honor was next.
"I love the Williamstown Theatre Festival. For 38 years, this theater has been an integral part of my life," he said.
The star of one of Levine's top series followed his speech. Rossum, who plays Fiona on "Shameless" and was cast as Juliet in the festival's 2006 production of "Romeo and Juliet," and board member Joe Finnegan encouraged guests to raise hands to donate sums for various causes ($15,000 to underwrite a world premiere, $10,000 to support actors, $5,000 for production and design, $1,000 for development and $500 for early career artists' housing).
Subsequent performances by Joshua Boone, Steve (Maurice) Jones, The Band's Visit's Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, Phillipa Soo, Naughton, Cusack, Matt Gould, Annaleigh Ashford and Myra Lucretia Taylor distracted from the gala's monetary motivations. But the night was still, at its core, a fundraising event. In the lounge, a TV displayed different online auction items up for bid, including a one-week trip to a four-bedroom home in Puerto Rico (airfare included); two tickets to "Springsteen on Broadway"; two pre-game field passes and tickets to a 2018 New England Patriots regular season game; and getaway packages to the Northern and Southern Berkshires.
And then there were the aforementioned public donations sought by Rossum and Finnegan. Before exiting the venue with a long dark coat draped over her shoulders just after 10 p.m., Rossum said that she had even raised her hand for one, pledging $1,000.
"Now I have to put down my credit card," she said. "I'm going to make good on that."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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