Cybill Shepherd gets personal
Tries Internet dating in 'Curvy Widow' at the Post St. Theatre
by Richard Dodds
The interview came to a brief halt. "Excuse me, I have to sing some opera," said Cybill Shepherd. She rose from the hotel-suite couch and let forth, full-throttle, with a few moments of an Italian aria. "That is my new reaction to panic."
What had unleashed this coloratura turn was the mention of the size of the theater in which she will soon open in Curvy Widow. It's the 700-seat Post Street Theatre, more than three times the size of the Atlanta theater in which Shepherd recently made her debut in the one-woman show.
"As soon as you said '700-seat theater,' I had to sing it away so I don't have that pain festering in my belly," said the 57-year-old veteran of movies, television, cabaret, beauty pageants, fashion magazines, but only sporadic stage work.
When Curvy Widow had its world premiere at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre in November, both Bobby Goldman's play and Shepherd's performance were mercilessly slammed by the critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Neither the star nor the playwright deny that opening night was anything less than a train wreck.
"That was the first night Cybill actually became tongue-tied," said Goldman. "That caught all of us a little, shall we say, by surprise." But the review helped turned the production into a local cause celebre, generating ongoing press coverage and turn-away business. "That review turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to us," said Goldman, upon whose experiences as a 50-something widow discovering Internet dating and sex the play is based.
Shepherd, on the other hand, isn't quite sure the review was the best thing that ever happened to her, calling it a "vicious, personal, nasty attack." But she also acknowledged that she was overwhelmed by continual script changes and lack of rehearsal time. "I always wanted a month's rehearsal. I don't know what happened to that month. It kind of disappeared on me. But I really had a breakthrough with the piece the beginning of the third week, and I started to get my sea legs."
The play has undergone more revisions for the San Francisco run, with director Scott Schwartz (Bat Boy â€“ The Musical ) working with Goldman and Shepherd on the changes. Its life after San Francisco, and Shepherd's involvement with it, are up in the air at this point.
"If they want me, I am contractually obliged to continue," Shepherd said. "I can't imagine I wouldn't want to. I've put a lot of work into this. And I just love the story of this woman who is at the top of her form, a successful businesswoman, a very controlling person who avoids intimacy, and then she's out there dating and dealing with sex from a so-called male point of view. I've had that during my life, too."
Although she was married to playwright James Goldman (The Lion in Winter) until his death in 1998, Goldman never envisioned herself as a playwright. But as she would relate her adventures in Internet dating and hookups to friends, they pressured her to turn it into a play. She is also the lead producer, and has a specific business plan in place for what sees as a hot property.
"I would call the play an odyssey of my slutdom after my husband dropped dead," Goldman said. "With the exception of smushing a couple of dates together, every single thing happened. There is no flight of fancy in this show because there didn't have to be. The situations were literally so funny and grotesque that you couldn't make them up."
The odyssey began when her therapist got fed up hearing Goldman moaning, "I'm a short Jewish widow, and no one will go out with me." He gave her a website address, and ordered her to get laid before their next session. She complied. "I slept
Goldman then got involved with a married man who abruptly dumped her, and she headed back to the computer. "I began dating more and more, and it was really terrible until I went on this sex site and found that an Armani-clad, Hermes-carrying woman in her 50s could actually find, if she's careful, not people with prison records, but CEOs of Fortune 500 companies." And usually married, the profile she prefers.
As to her current dating situation, "I'm still a slut," she said.
"I like the word 'slut,'" Shepherd said when told of Goldman's self-description from a separate interview. "Let's take back that word."
Shepherd, recently seen as a lesbian-leaning college chancellor on The L Word, has certainly had her share of sexual adventuring that she candidly chronicled in her 2000 memoir Cybill Disobedience. Its subtitle broadly hints at what's between the covers: How I Survived Beauty Pageants, Elvis, Sex, Bruce Willis, Lies, Marriage, Motherhood, Hollywood, and the Irrepressible Urge to Say What I Think.
"I had a lot of affairs with married men, and I'm not proud of it," she said. "When I wrote my memoirs, I talked about my growth as a human being. I didn't care if a man was married. I wasn't interested in being married. And I lived that kind of life, and I grew out of it, I hope. I have had a wonderful life making a fool out of myself, sometimes not even meaning to."
Shepherd did marry twice, unions that produced three children. There is no special someone in her life at the moment. "And my children have flown the nest, and so I struck out on my own to do a play."
Shepherd doesn't have much recent experience on the boards, with most of her live theater experience going back 20 years when she appeared in regional and dinner theaters following breakthrough film roles in The Last Picture Show and Taxi Driver. She followed the advice of her friend and frequent houseguest Orson Welles to learn first from live audiences before going in for formal acting training.
"And I would have done that, but then I'd get a pilot, and it was back to LA, and then get another pilot and another pilot." Most famously, there was Moonlighting, which ran from 1985-89. And then there was Cybill, which began a three-year run in 1995 before being abruptly cancelled. She is still bitter about how the show ended, how she was treated, and by the fact that the sitcom was never sold into syndication.
"I thought it was going to be my annuity," she said, "but, hey, I have a nice home in Encino, and I have enough money to finance this kind of risk-taking. I mean, I got paid $645 a week for the past two months doing this play."
Shepherd also got battered and bruised in the process, but, she said, "I wouldn't have missed this experience no matter what anyone has said. It's a chance to grow and to challenge myself, and to find my limitations and try to get past them. There are times when, if you just don't fall down, that's a kind of a success."
Curvy Widow will run at the Post Street Theatre through March 9. Tickets are $50-$75. Call 771-6900 or go to www.ticketmaster.com.