The Capital Was Her Claque, but the Svelte New Liz Taylor Seems Born for the Boards

updated 04/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

It all began with a casual comment in the theater. Seated next to Elizabeth Taylor last September at the Washington opening of his revival of Brigadoon, producer Zev Bufman gushed how he'd love to put the legendary film actress on the Broadway stage. "Why don't you call me?" she replied. Bufman didn't need to be asked twice. He phoned in November, after Ronald Reagan's victory guaranteed that Liz's Republican husband, Sen. John Warner, would be deeply immersed in the projects of the new Administration. "When Mr. Bufman approached me, it was the perfect time," Taylor explained subsequently. "And Mr. Bufman can be very persuasive." Especially with a dollar; he claims to be paying her "more than any other actor or actress has received for a nonmusical play on Broadway." But he doesn't begrudge her a nickel. Because it constitutes Taylor's American stage debut (her only other appearance in a play was a nonspeaking walk-on as a young girl in London), Bufman's production of Lillian Hellman's war-horse The Little Foxes has become the season's hottest ticket in both D.C. and New York, where it moves next month.

The beginning of its sold-out six-week engagement at Washington's Kennedy Center two weeks ago was therefore fittingly splendiferous. Senator Warner, who had served as Liz's consort through the round of pre-opening galas and had caught up on Senate homework in her dressing room during previews, bought 500 seats for one performance and hosted nearly half the U.S. Senate for dinner at his Washington townhouse before the curtain. The official opening was a black-tie event for which tout Washington turned out—including President Reagan, Vice-President Bush and their wives. But the star upstaged everyone as the curtain rang up and she made her entrance in a low-cut red gown, looking 10 years younger and at least 20 pounds lighter. (She reportedly spent two weeks at a Fort Lauderdale spa just before the play began its three-week tryout there in February.) One reviewer credited Liz with "a robust and involving performance that pumps life and suspense into many of the critical passages of the play."

For Liz, 49, it was a personal victory in a well-plotted campaign. After setting her sights on Broadway, she had spent several weeks mulling vehicles. Once she had whittled the choice down to The Little Foxes or Noël Coward's Hay Fever, she had Bufman bring in 20 professional actors to read through the two plays with her. She then chose the Foxes role of Regina, which Tallulah Bankhead had performed on Broadway in 1939 and Bette Davis had done two years later on film. "She is a very complex, convoluted lady," said Liz of Regina, a small-town Southern matron who schemes to make a fortune when a businessman seeks to industrialize the family plantation. "She is a coquette. She is a killer." Asked why she thought she was right for the part, Taylor replied, laughing, "I'm wonderful playing bitches."

It's certainly a great switch from her major role of the past half decade: the dutiful senator's wife. As mistress of Warner's 2,000-acre Atoka Farm in the Virginia hunt country, Taylor has been an exemplary hostess, as well as a fund raiser for such local institutions as the Corcoran Art Gallery and Wolf Trap. But her film career had stagnated, and there were whispers that life in the country and in Washington had left her restless. "She did the political thing for five years," said Warner, "and now it's time to do this. I think she's earned it."

Liz has said that the most pleasant surprise of her first stage role is that "I'm enjoying it as much as I am." The much-forecast friction between superstar and supporting cast (which includes Breaking Away's Dennis Christopher as her nephew) never materialized. And without vocal coaching or body miking, she was able to lift her voice to the balcony with ease. Asked if she gave Taylor any pointers, Broadway veteran co-star Maureen Stapleton replied, "She doesn't need any help."

Stapleton did jokingly complain of occasional "lessons in humility" when Liz's grand arrivals at parties stole attention away from everyone else. Life on the farm has not exactly weaned Taylor from her love of perks and limelight. During Foxes' Florida run, she was chauffeured to the theater by her bodyguard at the wheel of a $100,000 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. On a day off, she chartered a yacht to entertain the cast. Then when the Fort Lauderdale opening fell on her birthday, she celebrated with a party that featured a six-tiered cake decorated with purple flowers, and Warner sent lavender roses. Indeed, lavender, setting off her famous eyes, appears everywhere she goes. Her dressing rooms are painted that color, and in Washington the stage doorman even bought her violet pens and pencils at his own expense.

But for her fellow players, Liz apparently shed the royal purple, charming them all with team spirit. Director Austin Pendleton insists, "She's an ensemble player—there hasn't been a glimmer of her trying to take over." Producer Bufman calls his troupe "the happiest I've been with in 50 plays." Certainly he's happy. When the box office opened in New York, the theater set a house record for advance ticket sales. "We need stars on Broadway," says Bufman. "This is the start of a new relationship between Broadway and Elizabeth Taylor."

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