Building Character: Janeane Garofalo
The actress fights her impulses in The New Group’s latest play
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages’ ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
She’s a character you want to shake some sense into. As she moves through Russian Transport, Erika Sheffer’s world premiere play at the New Group, Diana behaves like someone who’s in control of her life and her family. A Russian immigrant who helps her husband run a car service, she’s gruffly charming as she barrels over everything, insisting that it’s Chinese food for dinner and threatening to kill her children if they don’t sit down right now.
Still, Diana can’t see that her family’s imploding. Her brother Boris, fresh off the boat from Russia, arrives with dark plans for his time in America. He changes everyone’s lives, and even though Diana’s partially aware of what he’s doing, she misses the most important details.
Her ignorance creates a satisfying tension. Almost every conversation has a second meaning, and we constantly think she’s about to grasp what’s going on. For this tension to feel authentic, the actress playing Diana can’t make her seem too wise, but at the same time, she has to demonstrate that Diana isn’t totally naïve. That’s the nightly challenge facing Janeane Garofalo, who’s making a rare stage appearance in the role.
“This is a choice I’ve made for Diana,” she says. “I do not know the extent of what’s happening. I am a pragmatist. I feel like, ‘We need money badly. We can’t cover our mortgage. The car service is tanking.’ I solicit my brother for help because I know he knows how to make money. The first time I read the script, that’s just how I saw it.”
But while she understands Diana, Garofalo doesn’t always relate to her. “She speaks to her daughter in a way I cannot fathom,” she says. “That’s hard for me with little Sarah Steele in the role. All I want to do is just grab her little face. And I have to fight the impulse because I’m not allowed to in the direction. I always want to touch her and be nicer to her, so what I try and do is make it more humorous and more flippant [when's she insulting the family]. I have snuck in touches even though I’m not supposed to. It’s an instinct in me to do it.”
That’s another level of tension in her performance: Garofalo, who’s known for films like Reality Bites and television shows like 24, has been working for decades as a stand-up comic, and in her act, she always follows her impulses: “I write it. I can wear what I want. I can say anything in any order that I want on any given night. I’m so used to that freedom, which does not exist in theatre.”
She continues, “In many instances, [the play] is blocked very specifically. That’s the nature of the medium. One must be where they’re supposed to be. There are lighting cues and other people’s exits and entrances. But my instinct is, ‘I don’t feel like sitting on the couch today. I don’t feel like putting the groceries here today.’ But I have to do it. That’s hard for me.”
However, the frustration actually helps her performance, however. “I try to use it for something else,” she explains. “I save it for when I need to be angry later. Sometimes, when I’m getting mad, it’s a frustration left over from, ‘I had to sit in the same f***ing place again.”
Garofalo is enjoying this difficult work, and she credits director Scott Elliott, who’s also the New Group’s artistic director, for making her realize she can handle it. “He’s a dream,” she says. “He says all the things that make you think you can do this. He just makes it the most natural thing. ‘Oh, no, no. You can do it. You’re fine.’ Now, all I want to do is plays with Scott. I wish I could go from play to play to play.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor