79, Number 33 | January 20 - 26, 2010
and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown
and Lower East Side, Since 1933
FOR SOLO VOICE
Written by David Scott Milton
Directed by Stanley Allan Sherman
Performed by Jonathan Slaff
January 28 through February 14
At Theater for the New City (155 First Avenue at 10th Street)
For tickets, call 212-868-4444 or visit
Slaff as Leonard Pelican
Photo by Nadia Kitirath
Publicist by day, performer by night
Schizo Slaff revives ‘crazy,
BY JERRY TALLMER
There are two Jonathan Slaffs. One is Jonathan
Slaff the busy Off-Broadway press agent. The other is Jonathan
Slaff the actor.
Both are very nice hard-working guys who look
and enthusiastically think about twenty years younger than
they are — or he is.
And in “Duet for Solo Voice” — a crazy, bitter
comedy opening January 28 at Crystal Field's Theater for
the New City, First Avenue and 10th Street, actor Slaff
plays two people at once, or virtually at once — an insanely
One half is the paranoid would-be novelist Leonard
Pelican, night manager of the sleazy 43rd Street Hotel.
The other half, conjured up in Pelican’s tortured imagination,
is Vassily Chort — murderous agent of the NKVD, Joseph Stalin’s
secret police. Chort talks like this, in heavily accented
“Hard-boiled egg and Beluga caviar. Exceptional!
I remember sitting with dear Stalin and Comrade Beria. It
was in Lubyanka prison, fourth floor, interrogation room.
Kaganovich was there and so was Molotov. It was just before
the trial of Bukharin and Rykov. We were all eating sandwiches,
caviar and hard-boiled egg…Beria told an amusing story.
When Gregory Zinoviev was being dragged to his execution,
he cried out: ‘Hear, oh Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord
is one!’ Stalin laughed until the tears came into his eyes.”
In point of fact, California-based David Scott
Milton, who wrote “Duet for Solo Voice” and many another
plays and screenplays, was born into a working-class Jewish
family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1934.
“He told me,” says Slaff, “he has two obsessions:
news and Jews.”
Slaff himself, born into a nice Jewish family
in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1950, thinks one of his
maternal grandmother’s aunts was Polina Zhemchuzhina, Molotov’s
free-speaking Jewish wife who was always getting her husband
into trouble with Stalin and the Politburo.
Says actor Slaff of nutty Leonard (pronounced
Lee-oh-nard) Pelican: “This is a writer who hates himself
so much, he has to create a devil he can hate more, an assassin
of the NKVD.”
The first New York exposure of this play was
in 1970 by director Wynn Handman’s American Place Theatre,
then at St. Clement’s Church on West 46th Street.
Five years later, with its title shortened to
“Duet,” it was done on Broadway, in tandem with Eugene O’Neill’s
“Hughie” — also set in a sleazy Times Square hotel — with
Ben Gazzara in both halves of the bill. A young Jonathan
Slaff saw that production, little thinking he would someday
play those instant-change two madmen in “Duet.”
In 1979, Jonathan started a decade of acting
classes under Wynn Handman. It was when he went back to
Handman for a refresher in 2008 that Leonard Pelican came
back into Jonathan’s life.
“One of the things Wynn had me work on was this
play. Not the Russian part, just Pelican, as an exercise.
Then Wynn said: ‘Why don’t you do the Russian,’ and that’s
when I really clicked into the part. I worked on it a little
bit more and a little bit more. Last spring I went to Wynn
and said: ‘What do you think I should do with this? Leave
it in the classroom, or…?’ Wynn said: ‘I think you should
do it. Nobody’s seen it now, or have long forgotten it.
It’ll be all yours.”
Jonathan called Crystal Field, a person important
in his life and the lives of hundreds of others. It was
at Theater for the New City that he had done his first musical
in New York (“Atonements,” 1978); his first leading role
(in “Upstate,” by Crystal herself, 1998): his first work
as publicist (at Crystal’s suggestion) and took his first
(now prolific) theatrical photographs.
He had also, for ten years, carved a great many
Jack-o-Lanterns for TNC’s annual Village Halloween Costume
Ball — “until I got allergic to pumpkins” and had to stop.
“Now I went to Crystal and said I’ve found a
part that agrees with me. She didn’t say: ‘Okay, a one-night
thing.’ She said: ‘You’re doing a run.’ ”
Slaff’s phony Russianism is something to see
— and hear.
“I don’t know where the fuck it comes from,”
Jonathan says. “It just comes out, erupts. I was working
on a lot of things — Nureyev, Barishnikov, ‘Boris Godunov’—but
was just fishing, and threw them all away.”
The instant changes, where Pelican exits for
the blink of an eye and immediately reenters as Chort, are
hellish fast and mean slapping on a mask, a hat, and a Mackintosh
Jonathan’s parents were Lyle and Muriel Slaff.
His father was in the magazine and newspaper distribution
business, his mother was president of the Little Theater
of Wilkes-Barre, where one of the shows she produced was
the first American amateur production of “The Fantasticks.”
“As a child actor,” says their son, “I was so
successful as young Patrick in ‘Auntie Mame’ that Julian
Stein, musical director of ‘The Fantasticks’ [on Sullivan
Street and then Wilkes-Barre], recruited me into ‘The Yearling’
[which was scheduled for Broadway]. This was in 1963. I
was 12, and a little shrimp.”
He’s no longer a little shrimp. “I’m 5-11, but
you can say six feet.” By the time “The Yearling” reached
Broadway, two years later, Jonathan was too big for the
So one thing leads to another to another and
here we are. Jonathan and his wife, actress Shirley Curtin,
have long lived on Perry Street. Their daughter Julia was
born in 1995.
At Yale, Jonathan “did not pursue theater,”
but was leaning toward it while at Columbia Business School,
here in the big city. He has had a flourishing career as
an actor in television commercials. On the way up the theatrical
ladder he some years ago — before Theater Row was Theater
Row — had a bit part there in a court-martial scene.
The play was Calder Willingham’s “End As a Man.”
The first-ever professional production of “End As a Man”
had been in 1963 at the Theatre de Lys on Christopher Street.
Its unforgettable star had been Ben Gazzara as a bullying
military-academy cadet — the same Ben Gazzara who would
twelve years later do “Duet” on Broadway.
What goes around comes around. “I have ice cube
for backbone,” says Vassily Chort.
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