Jess Goldstein may not be the most prolific costume designer in New York, but at times he appears to be. In the last year alone, he's designed plays by Craig Lucas, Terrence McNally, A.R. Gurney, and Lisa Kron, among others, working with such directors as Mark Brokaw, Joe Mantello, Daniel Sullivan, and John Tillinger. Two of this season's productions earned Goldstein a Lucille Lortel Award for costume design: Paula Vogel's satire The Mineola Twins and Evan Smith's Victorian comedy The Uneasy Chair.
This list mentions only the highlights. It leaves out his work at such regional venues as The Goodman Theatre, Long Wharf Theatre, and Hartford Stage. It certainly omits his productions at Glimmerglass Opera and New York City Opera. It completely ignores his work in film. And it doesn't begin to deal with his career as a teacher at Yale School of Drama.
All this activity, he notes, may have one major drawback. "I think my career has been either blessed, or cursed, by the fact that I do a very wide range of projects," he says. "People don't quite know what my design personality is." In a way he's right; a total stranger to the concept of design for its own sake, his work almost never calls attention to itself. But a closer look at any of his designs reveals a multitude of thoughtful details. The more you examine Goldstein's costumes, the more you realize just how much they say about the characters wearing them.
This is certainly true of his two Lortel Award-winning designs. The Mineola Twins covers three decades in the lives of Myrna and Myra, identical twins (except for their bustlines), both played in New York by Swoosie Kurtz. Good girl Myrna, of the substantial bosom, goes from virginal bobby soxer to pill-popping housewife to conservative media superstar. Flat-chested bad girl Myra, a promiscuous teenager, becomes a counterculture outlaw and a lesbian feminist politician. Their 30-year feud reaches an explosive climax outside a Long Island abortion clinic.
The Mineola Twins offered Goldstein many technical challenges. Not only did one actress play both lead roles, but the men in the twins' lives were played by a woman (originally Mo Gaffney, later Julie Kavner) who also played Myra's lesbian lover. Myrna's son was played by actress Mandy Siegfried. Many characters changed costumes while dancing in front of the audience, during musical transitional sequences.
The job of differentiating the twins' very different physiques fell to Goldstein. "Donna Langman, who built the costumes, made a bra for Myrna," says the designer, "because we couldn't find a period bra that fit Swoosie and also had enough exaggeration. There's a graphic of a bra in the set design [by Robert Brill and Scott Pask] that comes from a Frederick's of Hollywood catalog illustration--Swoosie's bra is based on that." For the final scene, in which Kurtz made a series of rapid-fire entrances as both sisters, Goldstein designed a padded suit, to help distinguish between the sisters' different contours.
Dressing Gaffney as a man also had its challenges; the actress, who was pregnant, played one scene in men's underwear. "She was three months along when we began rehearsals," says Goldstein. For the underwear scene, he says, "We made a heavy Spandex all-in-one T-shirt for her; it went down through her hips. She wore a real T-shirt and boxer shorts over that."
Throughout, the designer worked with the deftness of a sketch artist to fill viewers in on both the play's jumps in time and character development. Myrna's appearance in a stiff, vinyl 60s-era raincoat with a discreet checkerboard pattern, a scarf over her big period hair, and giant sunglasses, instantly communicated her depressed state of mind. Her magenta 80s power suit, with matching pumps and gold jewelry turned her into a formidable conservative gorgon. In her radical period, Myra sported a black beret that slyly recalled Patty Hearst in her Tania phase. Goldstein's costumes made Gaffney into both a convincingly horny male teenager and a sweet-natured, middle-aged lesbian in sensible skirt, shoes, and carry-all purse. The designer's work was aided by Bobby Miller's wigs, which captured a number of period styles.
The Uneasy Chair focuses on two Victorian couples, one middle-aged, one young, whose marital plans are hamstrung by Victorian conventions regarding sex and money. However, Goldstein says, "The scenes move so quickly that actors often don't have the option of leaving the stage," so he created a unit outfit for each of the four leads. Thus leading lady Dana Ivey wore a burgundy silk brocade dress, trimmed in velvet, while ingenue Haviland Morris wore a chartreuse silk with "a taffeta-damask underskirt." Accessories--hats, parasols, gloves, overcoats--were used to designate a change of scene; there were slight alterations as well, such as when Ivey's dress acquired a different bodice for a ball scene.
Discussing these projects, Goldstein often refers directly to the actors, their specific qualities and needs. This is a clue to his method. "The most important thing for a designer is to serve the play," he says. "It's not about the conception of the costumes; it's about the conception of the whole production and how the characters fit into the play. You're there to support how the actors become the characters. It's always hard for me to sketch a show when I don't know who the actors are. Even though it means a lot of late sketching, my work is better served by knowing who's going to be wearing the clothes."
The designer likes to establish a collaborative relationship with the actors at the earliest possible point. "I learned something from [director] Dan Sullivan," he says. "On the first day of rehearsal, he has a private meeting with each actor. He always has the costume designer go with him, so they can talk about the clothes. That way, you all start on that first day, hearing the same things. I always request that now; it's really important when you're doing a modern or period play."
Goldstein's interest in all the details of production process is probably not surprising given his longtime fascination with theatre. A New York native, he grew up in Fair Lawn, NJ, and began attending Broadway shows in junior high school. However, when he enrolled at Boston University, it was as an art student. "It just never occurred to me to attempt costume design as a living. It seemed like the most exotic and flamboyant career--something that Cecil Beaton or Edith Head would do. They didn't seem like people I knew." At BU, however, Goldstein's attitude began to change. "They had a theatre design major there, which was a kind of validation--if it was something you could study in college, then maybe it wasn't so outrageous." He entered the theatre department as a set designer. "I did the set for The Emperor Jones, but I didn't really have any contact with the actors. My first costume design was for the Archibald MacLeish play J.B., and I enjoyed it more. That's still what I love about costume design--spending time with actors, hearing their ideas, and creating their characters with them."
Goldstein moved to New York after graduation; he worked in the Juilliard costume shop, which was then run by John David Ridge (Tony-nominated designer of the recent Broadway revival of Ring Round the Moon); he also worked for Ray Diffen. These experiences provided him, he says, with a crucial introduction to New York's fabric shops and services. This was followed by a stint teaching costume design at University of Connecticut, then graduate school at Yale.
Goldstein says that he learned much from the faculty at Yale, which included then (as now) Ming Cho Lee and Jane Greenwood. "Ming made you think designers are thinking people, not decorators," he says. On the other hand, he notes, "Jane told you about the business, the show she was doing and the people she was working with." He graduated in 1978 and returned to New York. By the 1980-81 season, he was the designer for two (admittedly short-lived) Broadway musicals, Tintypes and Charley and Algernon.
Also in 1981, Goldstein went to Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky for a stint as resident designer, which he says was another learning experience, in terms of "doing things quickly and efficiently." He returned to New York in 1982. He sees the year 1988, when he designed a number of well-received productions, as a career turning point. Since then, his work has included Broadway revivals of A Streetcar Named Desire (starring Blythe Danner), Inherit the Wind, and The Most Happy Fella. His Off Broadway work has included the musical revue Closer Than Ever; The Substance of Fire, The End of the Day, and Three Hotels (all by Jon Robin Baitz); The Loman Family Picnic, Sight Unseen, and Collected Stories (all by Donald Margulies). He's been nominated three times for Drama Desk Awards, for When She Danced, Martin Sherman's drama about Isadora Duncan, Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion!, and The Mineola Twins.
Also, in 1990, Goldstein began teaching at Yale, joining Jane Greenwood on the costume faculty (previously, he taught at Rutgers University for eight years). "Jane and I make a good team," he says, adding, "The best thing about teaching is that it forces you to be articulate. Working with students, you have to focus your ideas."
But then, lack of ideas hardly seems to be an issue for this busy designer, who clearly combines a strong sense of focus and a fund of energy with a very quick mind. This season, his projects have been unusually varied, even for him. Last summer there was Communicating Doors, Alan Ayckbourn's science fiction farce set in a London hotel room in three different decades. Among the costume challenges was a dominatrix outfit for Mary Louise Parker, cast as a Cockney call girl. The Dying Gaul, produced by the Vineyard Theatre, is set in Hollywood; Allen Moyer's stark setting resembled a Japanese rock garden, so Goldstein dressed the actors in very fashionable clothing using an extremely restrained palette. He took a similar approach to Corpus Christi, dressing the cast, as per the script, in white shirts and khaki pants.
Shelagh Stevenson's The Memory of Water, produced at Manhattan Theatre Club, features three English sisters who have returned home for their mother's funeral. One of the play's conceits is that the mother is an onstage presence, in a younger version of herself, dressed for a party. "The playwright was very specific about it being a green taffeta cocktail dress," says Goldstein. "We tried a lot of different dresses on the actress, just for shapes. Then we used different parts of different dresses to design the best look for her. We got the shape of the bodice from one dress, the sleeves from another, the skirt shape from another."
A.R. Gurney's Far East, produced by Lincoln Center Theatre, is a rueful comedy that places a number of typical Gurney characters on an American Navy base in Japan during the early days of the Cold War. "We began by thinking that we'd find the uniforms," says Goldstein, "but it's hard to find khaki jackets that matched. They weren't all made from the same bolts of fabric, so the dye lots would be different. Obviously, the play is so filled with uniforms, you really want to get it right. They couldn't look okay; they had to look perfect." Thus the uniforms were tailored. The designer also had to search for the correct period Hawaiian shirts used in the show. "They were made out of rayon fabrics that shrank when washed," he says. "When you find them, an extra-large Hawaiian shirt from the 50s is probably the equivalent of a medium now."
The central character of the captain's wife, played by Lisa Emery, had the biggest wardrobe. "She wears six or seven outfits, which is a lot for one character," the designer says, adding, "Each is for a different occasion--you get an at-home outfit, a golfing outfit, a cocktail dress, a dress for the local dance, and a traveling suit at the end. Even though she's apart from this Japanese world, there's a slight influence of Japanese color and minimalism in her clothes."
Details of another sort were crucial to the Broadway revival of Night Must Fall, directed by John Tillinger. Emlyn Williams' thriller takes place in a remote country cottage. "Because the play is perceived as being old-fashioned--like a matinee at the movies on a rainy day--[set designer] Jim Noone had the idea that it might look like a black-and-white movie from the 1930s." Thus Noone's set was designed in black, white, and gray tones, with Goldstein's costumes following suit. "We're pretty strict about gray meaning gray," he says, "not meaning brownish grays or bluish grays. Anything with a bit of a color cast to it wouldn't work--it was too bright. We even found that any hair color that was too bright had to be toned down." He experimented with a similar palette for The Learned Ladies, produced this spring at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ.
The designer returns to Moliere this month, with a production of Tartuffe for New York Shakespeare Festival's Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. "It's basically set in the 17th century," he says, "but we're trying to slightly exaggerate the period silhouette, so that it becomes a bit bolder. Then we're stripping away a lot of the details, so the silhouette becomes even stronger. We're going with colors that are more modern, brighter and stronger, and we're not going to break up the clothes with as many details and accessories as you'd see in actual period wear."
Period wear was the key to Gemini, a revival of the smash hit 1977 comedy at Off Broadway's Second Stage Theatre. Set in 1973, Albert Innaurato's comedy mixes up a bunch of rowdy Southern Philadelphia ethnics with a couple of young WASPs. The challenge, Goldstein says, was finding the right clothing for Innaurato's outrageous characters, including Bunny, a blowsy, bottle-blond divorcee in her 40s. Among other things, Bunny dresses for a court appearance in a hot pink suit, with black and gold high-heeled shoes. "With a comedy like this," the designer says, "the clothes need to be funny, but they can't upstage the actors."
Also this spring, there was Tony Goldwyn's film A Walk on the Moon. Goldstein also designed the film versions of The Substance of Fire and Love! Valour! Compassion!, working with the plays' original directors, and in many cases, the original actors. A Walk on the Moon, however, is an original screenplay, set in the Catskills in 1969. Diane Lane stars as a young Jewish woman, married too young to a stolid TV repairman (Liev Schreiber). On the family's annual summer vacation, she falls hard for a hippie-ish peddler (Viggo Mortensen). The resulting affair upsets everyone's lives (the title refers to Neil Armstrong's moon walk, which took place in the summer of 1969).
Working with a low budget and a fair number of speaking roles, Goldstein had to look for existing period clothing. The film was shot in Montreal (as was Love! Valour! Compassion!): "All our preproduction work was done there," says the designer, who adds, "There are many vintage shops there, many more than in New York, so there was a lot of stuff to be found. But it seemed like a good idea to build some things, just to have a little more control over the colors for the lead characters." For Lane, "We built three or four day dresses, plus two cocktail dresses." He adds, "With a film like that, you have so little time with the actors before filming, so it's best to have a couple of racks of clothes, with various choices, just to see what looks best on the actors. You basically get two fittings on a film like that, in two or three weeks' time. So much of the preproduction work has to be done before the actors get to the same city as you." Goldstein adds that he sent Diane Lane photos from period magazines, "to give her a sense of where we were going," which they then discussed over the phone.
Surely, however, the designer's biggest challenge on this film is the Woodstock sequence, when Lane plays hooky from her family and has a romantic adventure with Mortensen. Approximately 500 extras were hired for the scene. "The worry was that everyone would show up with fringe and beads--but so much of that happened after Woodstock. If you look at pictures of the real event, out of every dozen people you see one tie-dyed shirt or one fringed blouse. So we gave the extras a sense of how to dress for the day, by showing them photographs of Woodstock when they were hired. We also had several racks of clothes for people who we knew would be in closeups, filling out scenes." On the day of filming, the designer and his assistant worked the crowd, making adjustments to each individual. The crowd looks substantially larger in the film, thanks to the miracle of computerized special effects.
At press time, Goldstein already had a number of projects lined up for the new theatre season, including a new film for Tony Goldwyn at Fox, Georgia Rules; the new Donald Margulies play, Dinner With Friends; and a revival of The Rainmaker for director Scott Ellis. But the designer is clearly always interested in a new challenge. Last season, he designed a CBS TV pilot, Second Opinion, about father-and-son doctors. He continues working in resident theatres such as Long Wharf, the McCarter Theatre, and Williamstown Theatre Festival. He also frankly admits he would love to design a big musical. In spite of his heavy workload, he approaches each project with real zest. Recalling his days as a student designer, he says, "It was the first time in my life that I loved doing schoolwork. It was a revelation to me, to find something that I enjoyed so much." There is a slight pause. "I still do."