Broadway, the movies, a clown, opera, comedy, dance, and hip-hop came to the Shakespeare Theatre Monday night for a gala celebration called Timeless Characters. Artistic director Michael Kahn charmed, Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham was honored, comedian Jerry Stiller was a little lost but a lot lovable, and a rapping Othello had the black-tie-clad audience raising their hands in the air as he and his crew brought down the house. I would say it was just another Monday night in Washington, but it wasn’t. It was special, warm, and fun, and essentially a cap to the city’s fall social season.
There will be other fall events, of course, which are important in their own way—but with the presidential election just under three weeks away, Washington social life shifts into lower gear, holding its breath, waiting to see whether what’s up ahead is an overhaul or a re-inauguration of the existing order. Once that’s decided, the city will carry on as it always does.
Maybe that’s what added the sweetness to the gathering at the Harman Center for the Arts, where 500 people filled the theater for the 90-minute program honoring Abraham. Bill Irwin opened the program in black tie rather than his usual clown costume (though that appeared later). He looked out into the audience until he found Abraham, and then praised him as “the embodiment of what every Shakespearean actor aspires to.” Everyone who came onstage came to praise the guest of honor, in particular Stiller, who endeared himself to the audience when he couldn’t seem to find his way in the script and made clear it didn’t matter anyway. “I don’t have too many happy memories of Shakespeare,” he cracked, “but I’m here to honor my buddy F. Murray.” Later, talking off the cuff about Abraham’s background, the 85-year-old comic actor segued to talk show icon Larry King. “I hate it when Larry King says, ‘I was a little boy from Brooklyn.’ Stop it, Larry. Who wasn’t?” The audience roared.
The Paul Taylor Dancers performed, soprano Lauren Flanigan sang an aria from Antony and Cleopatra, Broadway actor Howard McGillin, soon to appear in the new musical Rebecca, sang “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, and then the Q Brothers hit the stage. As a gift from the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the four young men in jeans and T-shirts performed their acclaimed Othello: The Remix. It was lively, profane, and wildly entertaining, a jolt the evening needed and a fitting prelude to the introduction of Abraham, who knows how to jolt an audience.
After thanking Kahn and the Harman Center, Abraham talked about performing in one of his favorite Shakespeare plays, The Merchant of Venice, in which he has played Shylock. “I guess it’s my favorite character,” he said, explaining, “Shakespeare, when he wrote Merchant of Venice, humanized Jews for the first time in Jacobean and Elizabethan theater.” He also spoke about Shakespeare being Catholic, and about how his family had to convert because “to be Catholic was a capital offense. So I think it’s legitimate to imagine, then, when you hear ‘Jew’ in this play, you can think Catholic or any other demonized faith or people.” He then performed a scene from the play’s third act, in which Shylock, “stripped of everything that’s dear to him, decides in retaliation to collect the legal debt owed to him, called a pound of his enemy’s flesh.”
The applause was huge for Abraham, but the program wasn’t done. Kahn had a surprise in store for his honoree: Out of the wings walked actress and singer Christine Ebersole, who closed the show.
The tradition of the Harman Gala, now in its sixth year, is that when the program ends at the theater, everyone walks the block and a half to the National Building Museum for a grand dinner and dancing. Costumed jesters guided the guests from one building to the other. The interior of the Building Museum was a vision of colored lights, and the fountain was filled not with water but with blue and white balloons and plastic swans. At their tables, guests could order cocktails (there was only wine at the pre-program reception) and have a chance to talk.
Among my dinner partners were Robert and Mary Haft. Mary had books on her mind. This year, she published one of her own, Nantucket: Portrait of an American Town. Robert, the well-known Washington entrepreneur, had politics on his mind. He explained that while he’d voted for Barack Obama in the last election, “because I thought he really was going to bring change,” he will instead vote for Mitt Romney on November 6—“not for personal reasons, but because I think he can fix the economy. He’ll bring in people from Bain and put them to work.” Haft said he’d met Romney before and found him a little “weird,” but he didn’t think that would have any effect on his performance as President. He said he decided his vote during the Democratic National Convention and it was unlikely the last two debates would change anything.
Also at the table were the Irish ambassador, Michael Collins, and his wife, Marie, philanthropists Paul and Rose Carter, and Shannon and Richard Fairbanks. Richard is one of the directors of Layalina Productions, which produces Arab- and English-language television programming for the Middle East and North Africa.
Michael Kahn brought Abraham over to our table to introduce him around. He was enjoying himself but, with the clock nearing 11, had an eye on the door. For a second he looked like he wanted to dance, but then he continued on his way. By that point the deejay was spinning old Motown loudly, and the younger guests, who had been cooling their jets at the museum’s entrance, having drinks and pretzels and waiting for the grown-ups to finish dinner, were hitting the dance floor. In the midst of it all, in slinky purple sequins, was a smiling Melissa Moss, the gala’s chair. There’s no happier person at any event than the chair who knows the job is done and there’s nothing left to do but dance.