By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Maia Madison remembers a recent Geffen Playhouse preview of Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress, Rivers' show-business memoir co-written with Douglas Bernstein and Denis Markell. (See New Reviews.) As Madison sat down before the show, a woman next to her opened her program and read an insert announcing Rivers' understudy.
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"There's an understudy for Joan?" the woman gasped to Madison. "Who in their right mind would stay? I'd want my money back. The only reason I bought this series was for Annette Bening and Joan Rivers."
"I absolutely don't blame you," Madison replied, leaving out one detail: She is Rivers' understudy. The story of how the 33-year-old Madison got the momentous yet paradoxically unenviable task of understudying the role belonging to a 74-year-old comedy legend acting in her own autobiographical tour de force turns the stereotype of show-biz breaks on its head. Madison began the journey as a reader for the show's auditions, giving cues to actors who sought the play's three other parts. Rather than simply read lines, she spoke them impersonating Rivers. This created an unforeseen problem, because the auditioning actors had a hard time keeping straight faces for director Bart DeLorenzo and casting director Phyllis Schuringa.
"I do the first audition as Joan," Madison recalls, "and Bart and Phyllis are giggling, saying, 'Wow, you do that really well.' And I'm, 'Well, I'm a Jew from New York — it's not like a stretch.'" Madison cautions interviewers that she speaks fast, and her mile-a-minute patter, combined with careening ad-libs, confirms her warning.
After four days, Madison assumed she'd no longer be needed to read once callbacks began. Not so — Rivers wanted to watch the callbacks and Madison was told she was expected to stay awhile longer.
"I'm sorry," she recalls saying. "You want me to be Joan Rivers in front of Joan Rivers?" But Madison found Rivers completely supportive of her impersonation, and before long she was asked to be Rivers' understudy.
"Joan could not be lovelier and is completely aware of the situation," Madison says of the strange development. Rivers, she says, truly understands that imitation is the highest form of flattery.
Indeed, Madison grew up on Manhattan's Upper East Side, mimicking everyone around her, from her Hungarian grandmother to the family's Guatemalan housekeeper. Even as a very young child, though, she didn't feel she was impersonating people so much as inhabiting them. Which is why she believes her personification of Rivers captures the entertainer's essence while not being a pitch-perfect imitation.
"I'm not really doing a Joan Rivers 'Can we tawk?' impression," she says, waving outstretched hands in the familiar Rivers parody. "I am playing any member of my family on the East Coast who has a little bit of a cold and sounds a little bit hoarse."
"Of course we have an understudy — it's a four-character play, for Chrissake!" Gil Cates, the Geffen Playhouse's producing director, has taken a break from his annual job as the Academy Awards executive-producer to answer questions about the seemingly odd situation in which the author-performer of a memoir-driven stage work has an understudy ready to step in. Cates says that a one-person show would simply be canceled in the event its performer were unable to go onstage, but Joan Rivers is a play with other actors and different options. So what happens if its star has a cold?
"Some people will stay and see the show," Cates speculates. "Others will ask to have their tickets replaced at a later date. I know I would be really pissed if I had dinner, went to the theater and was told the play was canceled. I'd rather be able to decide whether to stay and see the show or try to rebook tickets."
Cates points to theater's storied past of understudies suddenly pressed into the breach.
"Albert Finney once told me of how he stood backstage at a performance of Coriolanus," Cates says, "listening to the announcement being made that he would be playing the part that night instead of Laurence Olivier, and hearing the audience of 1,600 people groan at the news."
Still, adds Cates about Madison's prospects of taking over for Rivers, "It is my sincere belief that no one will see her but the director."
Says Rivers, "I truly think it is insane to have an understudy for an autobiographical show — other than Meryl Streep, of course (who begged for the job!). My advice to Maia is, 'Look out, bitch. I'd come back from the grave to make it onstage.'"
Although Madison did not participate in a rehearsal of Joan Rivers until after it opened, she fondly remembers the first run-throughs.
"Bart said, 'Joan, you remember Maia, she's going to be your understudy — don't drink anything she gives you,'" Madison says. "I said, 'Joan, if you get sick I'll kill you.'"
"Sweetheart," Rivers replied, "I hate to break it to you, but in 40 years I've never missed a performance. I went on the night my mother died."
Madison is aware of how drastically her replacement of Rivers would change the evening.