First Nighter: Karen Ludwig Recalls Her Substantial Acting Career in Where Was I?

In the English theater there's a term for it: jobbing actor. It's used to indicate actors who are regularly employed but infrequently achieve star status. They're typically extremely talented but haven't advanced to top billing due to luck, probably just as often as not.

If the designation were common in American theater, someone to whom it might frequently be attached is Karen Ludwig, whose solo show Where Was I?, directed comfortably by Dorothy Lyman, is at Theatre 54. Perhaps predictably, Ludwig is often identified first not for the stage roles she's played but as the lesbian with whom the Meryl Streep character is having an affair in Woody Allen's Manhattan.

(Raise your hand, if you've just gone, "Ah, right, now I know who she is.")

When Ludwig arrives in beautifully tailored white blouse and tight black pants on James Fenton's tasteful set with club chair, cube table and rug -- all grey -- she begins by running through a list of what she won't be talking about. One thing she doesn't mention is dispensing with her acting career.

She doesn't exclude that, because -- surprise, surprise -- that's almost exclusively what she does talk about. "Where was I?" she asks after several digressions, often having explained the projections rapidly appearing behind her. (No projections credit is given.) Where she was was talking about her theater, movie and television experiences over the last fifty-plus years.

They're myriad and very, very impressive. She's worked or studied with or simply befriended -- among others whose names make a loud thud when they're dropped -- Judith Anderson, Uta Hagen, Anne Bancroft, Kaye Ballard, Michael Cacoyannis. The best part is she's got good tales to tell about all of them. She has a hot one on appearing with Anderson in Medea and a sorrowful one about being fired from a subsequent Anderson production. She recounts one about losing and regaining Bancroft's favor over several years. She also has plenty to say about her mother, a woman proud of her daughter but, like many mothers, not careful about avoiding the hurtful remark.

Talking glancingly about being a Jewish lesbian but saying she's often said yes when asked if she's Greek, she demonstrates a deft sense of humor, which at times underlines why she must be fun company and at other times gives the impression that she's not someone you'd want to cross. It's a smart tongue she's got but clearly a sharp one.

There is a particularly moving sequence in the 75-minute reminiscence having to do with what might be Ludwig's most significant performance. She played Ethel Rosenberg in the 1992 television drama Citizen Cohn. Preparing for it, she not only read everything she could find about a woman she insists was innocent (as is generally believed now) but as part other research she also spoke to one of the two Rosenberg (now Meeropol) sons.

She knew that two guards aided Rosenberg into the electric chair and was satisfied that extras represented them onscreen, but she was also aware that a matron had been on hand for whom no extra was provided. Furthermore, she describes how she was directed to be more physical and vocal during the scene than Rosenberg had been in order to render the depiction as "grim" as possible. Her deep feelings about the miscarriage of Rosenberg justice remain evident.

As Ludwig runs her list of credits and near credits (some amusing auditions that didn't work out), she makes the point that the list is as long as it is because she's got no shortage of talent. And as she runs those credits, audience members might be excused for thinking part of her putting the monologue together is to convince others as well as herself that she's a gifted actor whose name should be more familiar than it is.

Incidentally, there's a thread running through Where Was I? having to do with Ludwig's being interrupted repeatedly by a call from her agent. When he phones initially, it takes a few seconds for Ludwig to realize the ring is from her cellphone and not one belonging to a member of the audience. It's a gag getting to be a theater cliché.

Anyway, the persistent fellow is letting her know she's to audition for a part as a life coach on Amy Shumer's television show, and every time he cuts in, it's to give more info about the shrinking role. Of course, the calls are a comic set-up. Perhaps the trope is based on something that actually happened to Ludwig, but even if it is, it's not excessively diverting. Surely, there's a better way indicate the indignities that even the best jobbing actors endure.