Older Woman, Younger Man: A Catherine Butterfield Comedy

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Catherine Butterfield, Adam Ferrara and Peggy J. Scott in It Has to Be You. Photo by Kim T. Sharp.
Catherine Butterfield, Adam Ferrara and Peggy J. Scott in It Has to Be You. Photo by Kim T. Sharp.
Catherine Butterfield, Adam Ferrara and Peggy J. Scott in It Has to Be You. Photo: Kim T. Sharp.

Does it? When you see a title like It Has to Be You — which happens to be the title of Catherine Butterfield‘s new play at the Abingdon Theatre Company (312 W. 36th St.), running through Oct. 26 — it begs the question. Who said it has to be, er, you? But someone is saying it. Someone is making the declaration. Someone is offering it as a fact — that it has to be you. That it must be you. That it will be you. But who? Who is “you”?

Ah, for there’s the rub. Butterfield’s play, directed by Stuart Ross, concerns a wealthy widow becoming involved with a much-younger man. Nothing wrong with that, of course, not in an era of Cougar Town and Extreme Cougar Wives. But the wealthy widow’s children do see a problem: they suspect the much-younger man is a scam artist, a schemer, the proverbial gigolo. Maybe even just a gigolo, if you catch our drift. But the play is also a comedy, too, and the wealthy widow is described in press materials as being “eccentric.” Or maybe she’s just having a good time?

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Clearly having fun as well is Butterfield, who appears in this production along with Peter Davenport, Adam Ferrara (late of Nurse Jackie, in his New York theatrical debut), Jeffrey C. Hawkins and Peggy J. Scott (late of House of Cards). Here’s a snippet from Butterfield’s bio:

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…previously produced full-length plays include Joined at the Head at the Manhattan Theatre Club; Brownstone, commissioned by the Laguna Playhouse; The Sleeper, which won the Kaufman and Hart Prize for New American Comedy at Arkansas Repertory; Where the Truth Lies (Irish Repertory); Snowing at Delphi (WPA Theatre); and Life in the Trees (Geva Theatre). Joined at the Head received the George E. Oppenheimer/New York Newsday Award, the Kennedy Center-American Express Award, and was nominated for a Drama Desk Award. Her newest play, To the Bone, just received the Audience Choice Award at the Road Theatre New Play Festival in Los Angeles. As an actress, she has played Off-Broadway and extensively in regional theatre (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Seattle Repertory, Pittsburgh Public Theatre, Intiman Theatre, Long Wharf, California Actor’s Theatre). She did a national tour of The Heidi Chronicles and performed her one-woman show, Bobo’s Birthday, at the American Place Theatre. She spent a large block of time in California TV/film-writing and child-raising. That child is now a drama student at Juilliard and Ms. Butterfield is thrilled to be back in her native city, doing the work she loves best…

Tickets for It Has to Be You are $25. For reservations and more information, call 866-811-4111 or click here.

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Catherine Butterfield.
Catherine Butterfield.

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work? What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work? What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
I’m not trying to dodge the issue, but I honestly remember very few questions people have asked me about my work — perceptive, idiotic or otherwise. I do remember some idiot saying his theatre couldn’t find good plays by female playwrights because there were so few of us, and of course that’s not a question, that’s just a gross inaccuracy; recently a woman on Facebook amassed a list of something like 10,000 female playwrights, so hopefully we’ve put this one to rest. People often ask me if it’s hard to act in the plays I write, and it’s not. It’s actually much more difficult to do a play where you’re not sure what the playwright is getting at. There is that moment during the rehearsal process where I have to take off my playwright hat and give myself over to the full luxury of exploring character. Hopefully the script is frozen by then and everyone is pretty happy with the text. And hopefully that moment isn’t just before you open.

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While older women-younger men dynamics are all over pop culture (Cougar Town, etc.), it’s less explored in the theatre. Why do you think this is? What does It Has to Be You do to crystallize such relationships for contemporary audiences?
The older woman/younger man subject may be under-explored, I don’t know. Sweet Bird of Youth springs to mind, but perhaps you’re right that it isn’t a topic that is dealt with much. To tell you why I became interested in the subject we have to go back to 1993, when I received New York Newsday’s Oppenheimer award at an elegant luncheon. My mother-in-law was thrilled to be seated next to the film and stage star Celeste Holm, and for the next decade she dined out on the story of how gracious and kind Ms. Holm was to her. In 2004 I read a story that Ms. Holm was involved in an ugly court battle with her children, who were upset about her marriage to a man of 41. It touched me because I had warm feelings for the woman who was so nice to my mother-in-law, and it made me sad that her final years were spent fighting with her children. At the same time, I was impressed at her stamina.  When I was younger I was always told that woman aged faster than men — I’m not sure where this fiction got started; maybe it’s truer in countries where women work in the fields while the men sit around in the cafes playing dominoes. At any rate, clearly Ms. Holm and a lot of women like her never got that memo. I don’t know if it’s hormones or better nutrition or just shifting perspectives, but for better or worse, the older woman/younger man thing is now a part of our culture. And it’s worth writing about.

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Hawkins and Butterfield (Sharp).
Hawkins and Butterfield. (Photo: Kim T. Sharp.)

Why do children have such a hard time thinking of widowed parents, particularly one’s mothers, as sexual human beings? To the degree to which you cover that in your play, how tough was it for you to tackle that topic? Why does it feel taboo for so many?
Even when we’re young we don’t like to think about our parents having sex. We’ve just learned about it and it’s gross to think about our parents doing something so unsavory. As we move into the teen years, it only gets worse: We don’t ever want to think of our parents having moments of complete abandon because they’re supposed to be focused on us, not carving out moments of individuality for themselves; it’s threatening. Later, when we become adults, we fall prey to the delusion that we have the market cornered on sexuality, and the idea that our parents are still doing it seems at best unnecessary and at worst in bad taste. I don’t exactly know why this is, but it seems to be wired into our DNA. For some reason, however, when it came to writing about Dorothy, it wasn’t tough to tackle the topic at all; it was fun. She and Burt might be sexual, or they might just enjoy the game of pretending to be sexual. At any rate, they enjoy each other hugely and that’s all that matters.

As a woman writing a play about a wealthy widow involved with a much-younger man, what does the younger man get — emotionally — out of such arrangements? Does gender make a difference in terms of imagining such a character?
What the much younger man gets out of a relationship with an older woman surely varies from person to person. When the woman is wealthy and the man is poor, it would be fatuous to assume money doesn’t play some role, but in addition to the security of a financial safety net, I think there are frequently other things at play. If a person has been traumatized by a hurtful relationship in the past, it might include the comfort of being in a calmer, wiser relationship. If the person is immature and unworldly, a sophisticated presence can make them feel more comfortable in a complicated world. I also believe it can happen that two people can meet who are absolutely perfect for each other in temperament, character and chemistry, and have this one little problem that they were born in quite different decades. For the rare few, this is not an impediment and they fall in love anyway. I’d like to think this is what happened with Celeste Holm. But then, I’m a bit of a romantic.

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