Comedy and Tragedy
CUNY Alumnae Light Up The Big Boards

In recent months, two CUNY graduates who span the generations have run the gamut of theatrical hilarity and angst on the New York stage.

Jane Sell Trese has been wearing the "big smile" mask, continuing the venerable Broadway tradition of backstage farces in "Moon Over Buffalo." The 1989 graduate of Hunter College served as the standby for star Carol Burnett and, on Tuesday nights, plays the heroine in Ken Ludwig's madcap bonfire of theatrical vanities.

Patrice Johnson wore the "big frown" mask last fall in David Hare's "Racing Demon," a grim anatomy of the moral quandaries confronting today's Church of England. Johnson is a recent graduate of City College's M.F.A. program in acting.

"Chekhov it's not," says Trese of the task of making comic Hay- that's zany leading lady Charlotte Hay- and managing all the minor comic crises created by this mating of Feydeau and Neil Simon. But the physical knock-about and old-fashioned comic furniture suit her just fine, she admits. The actress, who won a Tony award for the 1974 show "Over Here!," is returning to Broadway after a rather long absence.

That year, 1974, was the eve of Trese's silver anniversary on the stage. She had been singing, dancing, and acting professionally in her native Detroit from the age of 10. Her arrival in New York in 1965 with a husband and a new baby was hardly the tale of a wide-eyed, naive thespian. Open to career possibilities but not desperate to don grease paint, Trese was urged by an old friend from Detroit, then working at the Upstairs comedy club, to audition. Thus Janie Sell, as she then billed herself, was back in business in such shows as "Dames at Sea," "I Love My Wife," and "George M!" (The Detroit friend, by the way, was Mary Jane-a.k.a. Lily-Tomlin.)

When Trese hit her 40s, however, the gleam in the eyes of casting agents dimmed, and she was too rooted in older musicals to feel at home in the style of the new British shows. Feeling out of synch with the stage and nearly done with her task of mothering, Trese began to consider casting an entirely new role for herself.

"I wanted to prepare for the future, and I wanted to be useful," recalls the actress, who had spent two years at the Jesuit-run University of Detroit.

And so Trese began attending Hunter College, at first part-time but soon at full tilt, majoring in psychology and minoring in classical studies, drawing on six years of Latin. She reminisces with special fondness about one of her first courses, "Foundations of Science," which satisfied her science requirement and built her confidence. "Girls can't do science," she had been told. She still remembers a lab instructor, Robert Costello, who treated her with the perfect blend of encouragement and toughness. She also speaks about a statistics class that was "so much fun," in part because several other Broadway babies on new career paths were enrolled. "We all got A's, too," she notes with pride.

Trese's professors were "wonderful, wonderful," and she was "very, very well prepared," she says. This very proud alumna also points out that her sister suffers from myasthenia gravis and that a researcher on diagnostic approaches to the disease, chemist David Lavallee, was on the Hunter faculty during her years there. He is now Vice President and Provost at City College.

Did she feel self-conscious as a mid-life student among teenagers and 20-somethings? "Not at all," she avers. "In the theater you get used to rubbing shoulders with actors much younger, or older, than yourself. No, we're all in the cast together. Why should a classroom be different?"

In due course Trese graduated with honors on the eve of her 50th birthday, in 1989. One might think, given her fields of specialty, that she would have started learning the roles of Antigone, Medea, or Electra. But she at first contemplated going for a masters degree in social work and took several jobs interning in the field. "I soon came to realize I did not want to do this kind of work on a full-time basis," she explains. Instead, she applied for a receptionist position at Young & Rubicam. A few months later, she became the assistant to Peter Georgescu, who is now Chairman and CEO of the worldwide advertising conglomerate.

But Trese was still prominent in the mental Rolodex of Tom Moore, who had directed the play that garnered her a Tony. One day, Moore phoned to ask her to understudy Carol Burnett in a new Broadway comedy, saying she'd be perfect for the role. With her boss's blessing and Moore's promise to work around her daytime responsibilities, she agreed.

The decision was clearly on target. "It's been a thrill to do this show," says Trese, who finds its roasting of theatrical vanities done Rwith such humanity and humorS as to be irresistible. "There's something of me in Charlotte Hay," she also admits. Playing opposite the stately Philip Bosco has been a treat, too: "He was so generous to me in rehearsals, and on stage he is so much fun. He has a childlike quality in the best sense and is willing to play, to do something and see what you will do in return."

When asked if this latest twist in her resum bodes any major changes, Trese explains that all her life she has had trouble with plot. "All my major turning points happened almost by accident. Whenever I plan out something very carefully, it turns out badly, and I look back on it as overplanning. I am very lucky now; I have two great jobs.S But she adds, RI also have an open mind." Let come, she's decided, what may.

Nearly everybody in "Racing Demon" is in midcrisis," said the New York Times reviewer after opening night, and for Patrice Johnson that was putting it very mildly. She played Stella Marr, a young woman trapped between love and terror. Stella is married to a physically abusive husband and has been forced into having two abortions. When the play opens, the distraught character has finally summoned the courage to tell a priest of her agony.

Doing research for the role, Johnson says, "I knew I had to get beyond 'statistics' and listen to 'heart stories'." And one of those stories, it turned out, was her own. "My mother was abused when I was a child," she says, "and it was my sister, a psychiatrist, who told me I had isolated myself emotionally from this experience. Getting back in touch with my feelings about this was part of my process of creating this role. Believe me, there was a lot of wrenching emotion going on!"

The demanding role of Stella required the energy of an opera singer who belts out a high C at her entrance and then has to stay at that level. "The whole time I was on stage it was so ugly! It was like a wound that was always flowing." She had to transform her own personality completely: "That picture of me in the Times review...my friends could hardly believe it was me!" Exhausting though it was, Johnson looks back on her role as "the most thrilling thing I ever had to do as an actress."

As to Hare's play itself, Johnson plucks a paradoxical phrase out of the air: "secretly phenomenal." As she explains, "When I first read it, I thought it was incredibly boring, but once it began to sink in and rehearsals started, it gripped me, and I couldn't wait for it to get on its feet." Several other actors, Johnson adds, were also surprised at how characters sprang to life once they escaped from the script.

Johnson herself sprang to thespian life during her last year at Evander Childs High School in the Bronx. But, having always been strong in science, she followed her sister to Cornell University, where a career in that field seemed to beckon. But her dabbling in campus theater hooked her. "My brain never came back," she says with a laugh. After a year and a half at Cornell, she returned to New York, finally enrolling in the City College B.F.A. program. RIt was the most inexpensive program around, and it offered professional actorUs training,S she explains. "That's what I wanted--and that's what I got."

Adds Johnson, "I loved the campus, and the program was excellent for me. I thought all the adjuncts, people out there working in the business, were so real and engaged and generous." These adjuncts gave Johnson instant access to a city-wide web of contacts. "They bridged it for me. All of a sudden I would get a call that so-and-so recommended me and would I be interested in auditioning for such- and-such."

"Blessed" is the word Johnson summons for her career thus far. Between her third and fourth year at CCNY, for instance, she landed her first major gig, in "The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World" by Susan Lori Parks. (Parks has since become a major playwright; her screenplay "Girl Six" is in production now with director Spike Lee.) And Johnson's most cherished mentor in the B.F.A. program was Trazana Beverley, the Tony Award-winning actress in "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf." In fact, Johnson was cast in the 20th-anniversary production of "Colored Girls" at the New Federal Theatre/Tribeca, with the play's author, Ntozaki Shange, directing the play for the first time in a major venue.

In short order, too, the new CCNY graduate skipped the grind of countless auditions and also played Diana in the New York Shakespeare FestivalUs production of "All's Well That Ends Well" in Central Park. Johnson is saddened that state-imposed budget cuts have forced City College to end the B.F.A. program in acting. "When I graduated, I knew I didn't need to go to N.Y.U. or to Harvard for graduate work. I knew I was ready. I am sorry the program has been so underestimated. It's been cut off at the roots just as it was beginning to bud."

Prospective City College students with thespian ambitions, however, should not despair, since the B.A. program in Theater Arts is being maintained by the College in its English Department.