The very off-script moment that First Lady Michelle Obama had the other day, in which she was heckled at an event for the Democratic National Committee (and over an unkept promise regarding LGBT equality, of all things), was revelatory in several senses. After seven years in the national spotlight, we know that Mrs. Obama is not to be messed with, as her in-your-face reply to the heckler proved. But in rather much the same way that there were tales of President Bill Clinton’s temper yet relatively little audio or video evidence of it, Mrs. Obama’s public persona is arguably even more tightly scripted than her husband’s. It’s an understandable state of affairs, given that Americans can be notoriously fickle about — yet fiercely defensive of — its first ladies; we just don’t get many opportunities to see these women as they really are, or to glimpse what they really, truly think, if the eyes of the world weren’t unrelentingly trained in their direction. Who wouldn’t want to see the likes of Lady Bird Johnson or Pat Nixon or Betty Ford unplugged?
This delicious conceit is what inspired actress Elaine Bromka to collaborate with playwright Eric H. Weinberger on a solo piece called Tea for Three: Lady Bird, Pat & Betty, running through June 30 at the 30th Street Theatre (259 W. 30th St.), in a production mounted by Amas Musical Theatre.
Bromka — whose multi-decade acting career has covered Broadway, film and TV (and brought her an Emmy for the children’s program Catch a Rainbow — once starred opposite impressionist Rich Little in a play called The Presidents, which was later filmed for PBS. In it, she impersonated eight First Ladies and turned the assignment into a research project, devouring videotapes of all the women who lived in the White House from the Kennedy through the second Bush administrations. But Lady Bird, Pat and Betty clearly stood out for her — that is, they were the three First Ladies during the social upheaval and political tumult of the 1960s and 1970s, and together, as well as, individually, they represent the real-time evolution in the way a majority of the American people viewed women. Maybe they still stared up their husbands adoringly and with the haze-glaze that Nancy Reagan and others perfected, but these women, in private, were sharp as tacks and tough as nails and smart as whips.
The play, directed by Byam Stevens, takes place at a particularly pivotal moment, when each of them was facing the end of their time in the White House.
And now, 5 questions Elaine Bromka has never been asked:
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Well, Leonard, maybe this question is! But you’d be surprised how informed our audience members are. While playing Tea for Three, I have had presidential scholars, former White House staffers and friends of presidential families ask me about the accuracy of quotations, the political and social content — even the dress styles! Over the years, people have confided White House details I never would have known. Actually, one of the most gratifying comments came from an audience member who told me, “You let us walk in their shoes.” Love that!
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Well, I’ve been a stage performer for several decades now. I’ve had quiet audiences, drunken audiences, distracted audiences, intimate audiences and even rude audiences. I can honestly say, though, that I’ve never had an idiotic one. When someone asks “How do you learn all those lines?” or “Do you have a job during the day,” for example, I chalk it up to their eagerness and curiosity. I love audiences, I really and truly do. After all, they came out and saw my show, didn’t they? How could they be idiots?
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Ah. Actually, the weirdest question I ever heard come out of somebody’s mouth wasn’t directed to me, but to a colleague. In a talkback after a performance years ago, an audience member asked my fellow actor if he had ever worked with Daffy Duck. It took all of us a second to realize that the question was serious. After one Tea for Three performance, a bright-eyed woman came up to me and eagerly said, “You’re Betty Ford, aren’t you?” When I said that I certainly enjoyed playing her, the woman frowned slightly and said, “No, you are Betty Ford.” I just said, “Jerry’s such a doll, isn’t he?”
4) We know Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford all met one another. If you could be a fly on the wall for any meeting between them, what would the subject be? If you had to assign them characteristics — nice one, bitchy one, brilliant one — which would get which?
I imagine they would talk about the experience they all share — and that is the core substance of this play: What happens to your marriage and your kids and the whole way of life you had built for your family when you start living in the White House? He was elected, not you, but you have official duties, social expectations and political risks just as much as he does. And not a single one of these women chose it — it was a consequence of their husbands’ ambitions, not their own.
As for their characteristics, I’m afraid I am in the situation of every actor who really gets deep, deep inside a role — I love them! I can’t be critical of them; I really can’t. I have profound respect and admiration for each of these women, with all their strengths and their flaws. The author, Eric H. Weinberger, and I worked hard to get inside their psyches. They were brave, resourceful, loving, deeply patriotic and ultimately underestimated, of course. Welcome to being female! Wasn’t it Ginger Rogers who said that she did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels?
5) A casting director hires you tomorrow to play Michelle Obama. What would be the easiest and most difficult aspects of her personality for you to access as an actor?
Well, I’d need to do a lot more push-ups to get those hottie biceps! Seriously, I admire Michelle Obama tremendously. She speaks from the heart. In addition, of course, she and her husband made history, and they both know it. And she and I are both gardeners! I could teach her perennials and she could teach me vegetables!
6) Many 19th century First Ladies seem like remote historical figures. Setting aside the famous ones — Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, Mary Todd Lincoln — is there one that you know a bit about and find intriguing? If a 20th century First Lady could meet a 19th century First Lady, what might they discuss?
This is such a great question! As you know, the Presidency changed so much after Franklin Roosevelt, and so did the expectations that the nation had of the First Lady. Ladies then were only sometimes seen and practically never heard. I’ll bet, though, that Pat Nixon and Lady Bird would have had an especially long cup of tea with Eliza McCardle Johnson, whose husband Andrew Johnson became President upon the murder of Abraham Lincoln, only to be impeached by the Senate two years later. And wouldn’t Betty Ford have a good chat with Edith Carow Roosevelt about the experience of becoming First Lady overnight?
The one I’d like most to meet, though, just woman-to-woman, is an early-20th-Century First Lady, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson. She and I share a common attribute: When something needs to get done and it falls to you to do it, then damn it, do it! My favorite sweatshirt is one my husband gave me years ago: Rosie the Riveter showing her bicep and saying “We Can Do It!”