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There’s no time like the present

‘Shear Madness’ veterans make their Broadway debuts

Nancy E. Carroll (left) and Alice Duffy, who have both played Mrs. Shubert in Boston’s “Shear Madness,’’ are on Broadway in “Present Laughter.’’ Nancy E. Carroll (left) and Alice Duffy, who have both played Mrs. Shubert in Boston’s “Shear Madness,’’ are on Broadway in “Present Laughter.’’ (Jennifer Taylor)
By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / January 29, 2010

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NEW YORK - For three decades, “Shear Madness’’ has provided a potent proving ground - not to mention a steady paycheck - for some of Boston’s best comic actors, from Paula Plum and Kathy St. George to Will LeBow and John Kuntz. But the longest-running non-musical play in American history, celebrating its 30th anniversary today at the Charles Playhouse, has only rarely been a launching pad for Broadway.

This month, beloved Boston actresses Nancy E. Carroll and Alice Duffy, who have both played Mrs. Shubert in the interactive whodunit, made their Broadway debuts in Noel Coward’s fizzy “Present Laughter.’’ Former Huntington Theatre Company artistic director Nicholas Martin first staged the production in 2007 in Boston to rave reviews, with Victor Garber playing the self-absorbed, aging actor Garry Essendine.

Chatting with these two award-winning actresses in their shared dressing room at the American Airlines Theatre, it’s clear neither saw this moment coming. Duffy, 81, was even profiled on the “Today’’ show this week.

As the posh Lady Saltburn, Duffy gets one of the biggest laughs in “Present Laughter’’ with a death-grip handshake, while Carroll, 57, is just as funny playing the chain-smoking, séance-obsessed Swedish housekeeper, Miss Erikson.

Surrounded by giant flower bouquets, with a slew of cards from well-wishers pasted to their dressing-room mirrors, they spoke recently about their ascent to the Great White Way and their wild times in “Shear Madness.’’

Q. When “Present Laughter’’ opened here, were there any first-night jitters?

Carroll: It was wonderful and fun and amazing. But there’s so much energy backstage on opening night that you feel tense, and you don’t really realize how tense you are until it’s over.

Duffy: We weren’t stressed about the play, per se. But it’s all the hype around a Broadway show.

Carroll: You walk in, and you see all these flowers and cards and messages from people. You feel a great responsibility.

Q. What’s it been like making your Broadway debuts at this stage in your careers?

Carroll: It’s surreal. I’d worked off-Broadway in New York before. But I certainly never saw this destination coming. So it’s such a surprise and a gift.

Duffy: I never even aspired to Broadway. It just never entered my thinking.

Carroll: Then she started thinking about the other actresses of her generation that are also onstage right now.

Duffy: I don’t compare myself to these ladies. But Angela Lansbury is in “A Little Night Music,’’ Estelle Parsons is [touring] in “August: Osage County,’’ and Elaine Stritch is doing a Sondheim cabaret. So it’s evidently the year of the octogenarians in theater.

Q. You’ve acted together in Boston shows before, from “Kindertransport’’ to “The Women’’ to “Dead End.’’ Has it been good having a friend to lean on for support and advice?

Duffy: Well, I sort of think of Nancy as an adopted daughter. I can’t imagine anybody that I would rather go through this experience with than her. And we think so much alike about so many things. Both of us are list-makers and worriers and planners. So we restrain each other. We’re a good influence on each other - reining in our worst habits (laughs).

Q. When did you first join “Shear Madness,’’ and how many performances have each of you done?

Duffy: I went into “Shear Madness’’ around 1990. As for number of performances, my last count was over 1,000. That was around the time I decided, I think maybe I’ve done this enough. I have plumbed the depths of this character.

Carroll: I must have gone in about 1995. When I first went in, it was Pat Shea, Michael Fennimore, Richard Snee, and Kathy St. George. It was truly one of the funniest dressing rooms you could ever be in. There was as much laughter off stage as there was onstage. And you’re all sharing one tiny little space backstage!

Duffy: Oh, and that dressing room is a gem - decor by Attila the Hun. I guess it had a seedy charm to it, though.

Q. What are your memories from the first time doing it?

Carroll: I was nervous, of course. And Michael [Fennimore] said, “Don’t be nervous. Just do the show as written, and don’t try anything new, because the show’s been running so long, it’s a well-oiled machine.’’ So we’re onstage, and at one point I took, like, a nanosecond pause before I said some line. I looked stage left at the rest of the cast, and every single one of them were staring at their wristwatches and then looking at me, like “pick up the pace,’’ because I had taken too long of a pause before saying the line.

Duffy: I was absolutely terrified. . . . It’s like jumping onto a moving train. It goes like wind. And it has to! God forbid the audience ever stopped to think about the logic or reason behind the script (laughs). If there had been a back door, which mercifully there wasn’t, I think I would have run home as fast as I could. Nothing has ever scared me that much again. Whenever I’ve been nervous to go onstage, I always think, if you got through ‘‘Shear Madness,’’ you can get through anything.

Q. Nancy, you’re best known for deeply moving work in dramas ranging from “The Year of Magical Thinking’’ to “Happy Days’’ and “Bailegangaire.’’ Is playing a light comic supporting character a welcome change of pace?

Carroll: Yeah, my brother always says to me, “I love all the plays you do, and you’re so wonderful in them. But can you please do something funny for once, not just all these wrist-slitters?’’ So it is refreshing to do something a little less taxing and not so dark.

PRESENT LAUGHTER

At: American Airlines Theatre,

New York, through March 21

Tickets: $66.50-$116.50. 212-719-1300,

www.roundabouttheatre.org

SHEAR MADNESS

At: Charles Playhouse.

Tickets: $42. 617-426-5225,

www.shearmadness.com