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Category — Building Character

When She Lectures, You Laugh

Mary Louise Wilson in On the Twentieth Century

Mary Louise Wilson in On the Twentieth Century

Broadway veteran Mary Louise Wilson breaks the fourth wall and brings down the house in On the Twentieth Century

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

When Mary Louise Wilson urges the audience to “Repent, repent, repent!” in Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of the screwball musical comedy On the Twentieth Century, everyone bursts out laughing. That’s because her character, a seemingly sweet little old heiress, Letitia Peabody Primrose, lets us in on some secrets, including the fact that she, too, was once a hellion. As she sings, “Until one night I saw the light, and heard salvation’s call. I’m so glad I didn’t hear it, until I’d done it all!”

That last Betty Comden and Adolph Green lyric could also apply to Wilson herself. Born in 1932, approximately the same year On the Twentieth Century is set, she’s made her living as a character actress for more than 50 years, earning an Obie as fashion icon Diana Vreeland in the solo show Full Gallop (which Wilson also cowrote) and a Tony as bedridden eccentric Big Edie in the musical Grey Gardens. But 2015 may be her busiest year yet: In addition to performing on Broadway, she’s releasing a memoir, My First Hundred Years in Show Business, and is the focus of the documentary She’s the Best Thing In It, which is currently making the film festival rounds. It’s no wonder she slept through our original morning interview time.

“Once I get home after the show at 11pm, I can’t go to sleep before 2am!” she explains. “We’re all exhausted doing eight shows a week. For any actor it’s a killer. It’s very, very hard to keep the joie de vivre all the way through.” Of course, that becomes even more difficult as one gets older. Yet Wilson isn’t one to let her age get in the way of working—when asked if she’ll ever retire, she jokes, “Lust doesn’t die; neither does the wish to perform!” Still, she admits she initially had qualms about taking on Letitia. “Imogene Coca, who did the role originally, was a soprano, so I thought, ‘How the hell am I going to hit the high notes?’” she remembers. “I’m like a baritone normally. But the musical director, Kevin Stites, helped me to vocalize and enlarged my range. I also told Scott [Ellis, the director], ‘I don’t think I can do the matinees.’ And he said, ‘Yes, you can. We’re going to have a little chair to sit in here, a little chair to sit in there.’ He had faith I could do it. I did get on the treadmill more. And I started learning my big song ["Repent"] way before rehearsals began because my memory isn’t as quick as it used to be. But I seem to be fine, knock wood.” [Read more →]

February 25, 2015   No Comments

Would You Have an Affair for the Sake of Your Memoir?

Anna Camp in Verite

Anna Camp in Verite

Anna Camp plays an artist in crisis in Verité

“This play is definitely keeping me up at night,” says Anna Camp, the star of Verité, Nick Jones’s unsettling new comedy at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater.

Specifically, she’s unsettled by the decisions her character makes about balancing her family life with her career as an aspiring novelist.

“It’s about being an artist and the things you give up to be an artist,” says the actress. “My mom got married when she was young and had my sister and me. I haven’t felt the real urge to have children yet, because I’m still driven to make a career for myself. And you can see how for [my character] Jo, that’s not enough for her. She has this desire to become good at what she wants to do with her life, along with being a mother and a wife.”

Indeed, though Jo has a husband and young son in suburban New Jersey who have supported her as she’s toiled on her first novel, she soon feels it necessary to cut them loose for a while to write her next book. She makes this drastic break after receiving a generous advance from a pair of cheerily nosy New York editors, who reject her first effort but say they love her “voice” and want her to write a memoir—the more dramatic the better.

At first, Camp says, the publishers’ commission “makes Jo feel very uncomfortable. She isn’t used to having people interested in her or in what she has to say. And they’re interested not in what she’s written but in her personal life.”

This unwanted attention, though, does make Jo reexamine her mundane existence. An escape hatch seems to appear when she’s approached by Winston, a mysterious man who says he knows her from high school. Convinced that “the editors have planted this man in her life to move the story forward,” Jo wills herself into a dalliance with him—all for the sake of her art, she tells herself.

This is where Camp’s Jo—up to then an Everywoman protagonist we can trust to take us through the playwright’s weird, Charlie Kaufman-esque world—becomes an unreliable narrator of her own increasingly preposterous life. And it’s where Camp’s acting starts to get complicated. [Read more →]

February 12, 2015   No Comments

How Is She Playing 40 People At Once?

Christina Bianco

Christina Bianco

In Application Pending, Christina Bianco plays an entire community of stressed out parents

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

It’s a wonder that actress Christina Bianco doesn’t struggle with nightmares about the dozens of characters she plays in Off-Broadway’s one-woman comedy Application Pending. You imagine that keeping all of them straight haunts her fevered mind.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, which means it really is the most rewarding, as well,” says Bianco, a Forbidden Broadway veteran and YouTube video star known for easily leaping from one voice to another, singing dead-on impressions of Celine Dion, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, Idina Menzel, and others.

For the record, Bianco portrays more than forty people in Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg’s brisk, non-musical look at the admissions office of Manhattan’s fictional and elite Edgely Preparatory Academy. The 80-minute play, now at Westside Theatre/Downstairs, charts the fraught deadline day for pre-kindergarten applications, and phones are ringing off the hook with parents of all stripes (and stereotypes) advocating for their oh-so-worthy kids.

Fielding those calls is the polite, reserved “Christine,” who has suddenly inherited the job of admissions director following the hasty exit of her shady predecessor. The onslaught of callers—all voiced by the tireless Bianco, who sits at a desk—includes a pushy Jewish stage mother; a society lady; a soft-spoken dad; flamboyant gay fathers; a New England businessman; and an assortment of kids, educators, administrators, law enforcement officials, clergy, academic rivals, and child advocates, including George Clooney.

There’s even a chest-thumping cameo from Celine Dion, a diva treat for Bianco’s diehard fans.

“I never had a template for how to prepare for this,” Bianco says of performing her many, many roles. “Typically, I like to show up the first day of rehearsal very memorized, very off-book so I can dive in and start playing immediately. That was not an option with this show.”

First of all, this was a new play—a work in progress—with edits, cuts, and rewrites happening during the rehearsal process. And then there was the task of memorizing the order of which character was calling—plus remembering what each person was calling about—all while trying to tune out the nonstop phone-ringing and light cues that punctuate the chaos.

“Many of these characters call more than once,” Bianco says with an exasperated laugh. “At times, I found a lot of it to be physically and vocally impossible. I said, ‘I’m only one person. I can only cut myself off so many times…I might actually hyperventilate!’ It does get very hard to play somebody who is really high strung and then go back to the voice of the next person, who is very calm and collected.”

The solution for that particular challenge came from Sandberg (who also directs) and Edwards, who revised the order of some calls. “I’m grateful that they helped make it something playable that gets all the correct points across without me passing out by the end of the show,” Bianco says. [Read more →]

February 11, 2015   1 Comment

She’s Destroying My Career, But We’re Still Friends

Tonya Pinkins & Dianne Wiest

Tonya Pinkins & Dianne Wiest

In Rasheeda Speaking,Tonya Pinkins navigates race, class, and the power of kindness

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

You might assume that Tonya Pinkins focuses on the conflict in Rasheeda Speaking. After all, Joel Drake Johnson’s play, now in a New Group production at the Signature Center complex, basically turns a Chicago doctor’s office into a war zone.

From the first scene, it seems the decks are stacked against Pinkins’ character Jaclyn, who works in a reception area with her white co-worker Ileen (Dianne Wiest). The doctor wants Jaclyn replaced, and he enlists Ileen to gather proof that she deserves to be fired. But as soon as Jaclyn catches wind of the plot, she goes on the defensive, working angle after angle to protect her job. This battle chips at everyone’s professionalism until their true feelings about race, class, and power burst into view. By the end, everyone’s wounded, everyone’s guilty, and it’s hard to say who’s right or wrong.

But for all that, the Pinkins and Wiest focus their performances on how much Jaclyn and Ileen like each other. “The two of us were in agreement about the fact that what needed to be on that stage is a friendship between two people,” says Pinkins. “We knew that if we could play the friendship until [the script] absolutely says the friendship is over, then that would hold up the play and make it have a devastating effect on people. No matter what we’re saying, we’re trying to stay connected and bridge whatever’s going on.”

That’s why, for instance, the co-stars find so many opportunities to touch each other, to pat shoulders or even embrace. Those moments remind us that beyond the situation their boss has put them in, beyond their personal agendas and fears and flaws, they are fundamentally decent. “If that friendship is not there, then it’s just a play about a bunch of really nasty, cruel, lying, deceptive people,” Pinkins says.

At the same time, the blunt facts of racism also compel Pinkins to shade her performance with compassion and vulnerability. “I’m a large black woman,” she says. “Dianne is a small white woman. Just that physical relationship on the stage—the first appearance of that is going to make it look like I’m the bad guy. That’s going to be a visceral response.” [Read more →]

February 6, 2015   7 Comments

Do You Care More About the Captive or the Captor?

Justin Kirk (r) and Usman Ally

Justin Kirk (r) and Usman Ally

Usman Ally brings alluring layers to Ayad Akhtar’s latest play

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

Nick Bright, the American investment banker who’s kidnapped and held for ransom in Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand, certainly evokes some sympathy. In the play, which is now at New York Theatre Workshop, he has to raise his own ransom by playing the stock market, turning a $3 million investment into $10 million. He endures mercurial treatment at the hands of his kidnappers, plus he’s got a wife and 3-year-old back home. Yet despite all this, you may find yourself drawn to Bashir, one of Nick’s captors.

Played with a razor sharp edge by Usman Ally, Bashir is British born of Pakistani heritage. “I think the audience gets thrown off by that,” says the actor, who also starred in the first production of Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced. “In the first scene they meet [the character] Dar, who speaks English with a Pakistani accent. When they see me they expect me to sound the same, but instead I’ve got this middle-class English brogue.”

As Bashir stalks the stage, spitting out Britishisms like “dirty old geezer,” the audience gets fleeting information about his past and what turned him into toward militancy. But Ally’s performance never falls to caricature: Bashir’s anger, disenfranchisement, and angst are all very real. His student/teacher dynamic with Nick, from whom he learns the tricks of the economic trade, is also surprising, and in these scenes Bashir is like that disruptive schoolmate who could be the smartest in the class if only he could manage to control his outbursts. (When he lashes out at his captive, though, we remember just who is in control.) [Read more →]

December 15, 2014   No Comments