NEW YORK — By now, Woody Allen’s ruthless auditions are part of Hollywood lore — a dark stage illuminated by a single spotlight, actors cut off mid-sentence or thanked for their time before even beginning to speak. As the first candidate to try out for Allen’s “Riverside Drive” — one of two one-act plays in “Writer’s Block,” Allen’s theatrical directorial debut opening May 15 at the Atlantic Theater Co. — actress Kate Blumberg understandably had a bout of anxiety.
“You’re told — ‘Don’t look at him, don’t talk to him, don’t shake his hand,’” says the bouncy Cape Town native in her clipped accent over a cup of tea, “‘Go in. Do your work and leave.’” So, when Allen rose after her scene, shuffled over to her and began whispering some stage direction in her ear, Blumberg didn’t know what to think. She repeated the scene, following his suggestion to be more aggressive. And then the months went by.
“There were all these stars coming in and auditioning,” says the actress, a member of the Atlantic, where the casting was taking place. “Everyone you can imagine from New York to L.A.” But something about Blumberg’s version of Barbara, the other woman in the play’s comedic love triangle, must have stuck with Allen. She landed the part opposite Paul Reiser, who plays her lover, and Skipp Sudduth, who plays a prophetic homeless man.
Although Blumberg has been acting in the U.S. for 12 years, this is the first time the actress, who exudes a natural, cherubic wholesomeness, has played a character not adored by the audience. “It’s nice to be expanding that way — and to be a bitch,” she says of her role. “The bitchier the better, as far as I’m concerned!”
Having appeared in multiple plays, TV shows and films, including “Serendipity,” her most critically acclaimed role to date was in “The Syringa Tree” last year, a one-woman show in which she played 24 characters and was deemed “an emotionally powerful tour de force” by The New Yorker. “I think I’m meant to be on the stage,” she says, adding that a few more film roles couldn’t hurt. “I want to make money.”
The daughter of a South African candy maker and British broadcast journalist — her mother hosts the Johannesburg version of “Access Hollywood” — she decided to come to America while backpacking through Europe. A fellow traveler mentioned that NYU was the ultimate school for acting, and Blumberg was smitten. She applied to the Tisch School of the Arts, and the rest is history. “My father still comes for every opening night,” she says.
For the “Writer’s Block” premiere, he’ll be part of a packed house. The play, which runs through June 29, has nearly sold out, and Blumberg says Allen sneaks into the back of the auditorium every time the lights dim.
And how is Allen managing in his new role as theater director? He’s very focused, according to this cast member. “When it’s time to work, he works. When it’s time to eat, he eats,” she says. “At 11:30 every day, he has the same corn muffin with black decaf tea, and at 1 p.m., the same turkey sandwich.”
Blumberg recalls telling the director, famous for minimal interaction with his cast, that he looked very comfortable talking to the actors: “Woody said, ‘It’s an act, the whole thing’s an act.’ I said, ‘Would you do it again?’”
His reply: “I’d write a play but have someone else direct it.”