It was a weekend night two weeks ago, and movie legend Faye Dunaway had just taken several bows after her next-to-last solo performance in “Tea at Five’’ at Boston’s Huntington Avenue Theatre, when something odd happened.
As the curtain began to close, Dunaway suddenly reached out and touched it in a gesture that was half-grab, half-push. Was she trying to keep the curtain open so she could take one more bow? Or was she simply startled? Either way, the gesture by the 78-year-old actress drew snickers from the audience.
Now the curtain has come crashing down on Dunaway’s much-anticipated theater comeback, and in the most ignominious fashion imaginable. This week the Oscar-winning star of films like “Network,’’ “Chinatown,’’ and “Bonnie and Clyde’’ was summarily fired by the producers of “Tea at Five.’’ The announcement of her firing in a terse two-sentence press release was quickly followed by a story in the New York Post that Dunaway “slapped and threw things’’ at crew members who were attempting to put on her wig, forcing the cancellation of the July 10 performance moments before it was scheduled to begin. According to the story, that was part of a pattern of erratic behavior during the run. Matthew Lombardo, the playwright who rewrote “Tea at Five’’ specifically for Dunaway, posted a link to the story on his Facebook page, writing two words above that spoke volumes: “Ummm. Yup.’’
It’s probably premature to say we’re witnessing the downfall of a great star, but at a minimum, this episode represents a very dark chapter late in Dunaway’s storied career. One of the most-anticipated productions of the year in Boston theater circles, “Tea at Five’’ gave her the chance to portray a figure who looms even larger in film history than Dunaway does, and whom she greatly admires: Katharine Hepburn. It was designed to pave the way for Dunaway’s triumphant return to Broadway after a 37-year absence — and, more broadly, her journey back to the place she considers home: the stage. In a June interview, she told me: “I’ve been wanting to move back to the theater, which are my roots. Wanting to work more there.’’ But it’s very hard to picture another theater producer taking a chance on hiring Dunaway anytime soon.
The Dunaway debacle could also deliver a sidelong blow to Boston’s fitful attempt to regain its status as a pre-Broadway tryout town, coming as it does on the heels of the cancellation of this fall’s tryout of “Magic Mike the Musical’’ at the Emerson Colonial Theatre. Boston was supposed to be the site of the sole pre-Broadway engagement for “Tea at Five,’’ but in announcing Dunaway’s firing, producers said that the play is going to be recast with a different actress for a run in London’s West End early next year. They said nothing about whether it will then go to Broadway. (As of Friday evening, the producers had not responded to Globe requests for elaboration on the circumstances of Dunaway’s dismissal and to questions about the possible Broadway prospects for “Tea at Five.’’)
Is the episode a cautionary tale about the kind of pressure cooker that an actor enters when performing live, especially in a solo show? Actors have to wage a constant battle against ageism, but Dunaway’s reported struggles with her lines at some performances are bound to raise the age issue in some circles. She reportedly had some lines fed to her through an earpiece — a tactic that Al Pacino also resorted to during the 2015 Broadway run of “China Doll,’’ according to New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel, who was also the writer who reported this week on Dunaway’s alleged behavior in Boston.
Her firing can be seen as a signal that theater producers are willing to play hardball, even with the biggest names. It’s worth remembering, too, the behind-the-scenes challenges that lower-ranking theater staffers can face when dealing with celebrities. Sometimes those staffers find themselves on the receiving end of a star’s whims or outbursts. (“Tea at Five’’ rented the Huntington Avenue Theatre, the main stage of the Huntington Theatre Company, but it was not a Huntington Theatre Company production. The company provided only the box-office and front-of-house staff, and the rest of the crew who worked on “Tea at Five,’’ including hair and makeup technicians, worked for the production itself, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.)
Staging “Tea at Five’’ in Boston was supposed to represent a happy homecoming for Dunaway. She went to Boston University in the early 1960s, got her professional training here before heading off to Broadway and film stardom, and then became visible in Boston again in the 1970s during her marriage to J. Geils Band singer Peter Wolf. “I have a great history with Boston,’’ Dunaway told me. “I love this city.’’
But this city did not appear to love her back, not this time. When I attended that July 13 performance of “Tea at Five,’’ the house was one-third empty, even though it was a Saturday night, prime time for theatergoers. Now, she might well have additional chapters to write in her amazing career. She recovered from the Academy Awards “La La Land’’-“Moonlight’’ fiasco, after all. At least for now, though, Boston is where it all began and where it fell apart for Faye Dunaway.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin