Last week, in the Molly Smith Library, a high-ceilinged first-floor room at Arena Stage looking out onto Maine Avenue, Jayne Houdyshell and Delaney Williams spent their lunch break talking to me during a day of rehearsal for the world premiere of The Shoplifters. Williams is familiar to DC audiences, having performed at nearly every major theater in town and some minor ones. Houdyshell is one of the busiest and most admired of New York actors and is making her DC debut in The Shoplifters. They displayed an easy, joking rapport, and we began to talk about the project that has brought them together.
“I love the role,” Houdyshell began. “I always welcome the opportunity to play interesting, smart, strong, ordinary women, because I feel like they are under-represented in the arts. So there’s that, but I also like the questions asked and things discussed in the play: what stealing is, who the real thieves are, who goes punished and who goes unpunished. It’s very funny. I enjoy all the comedic elements. He’s a smart writer.”
“What she said,” Williams dead-panned, before telling me about his unusual path to arrive at Arena this summer. At the last minute, the actor who had been cast in the part was unavailable. “Yeah, it came up pretty quick. The hardest part was a week before rehearsals began to have to rearrange my life.” The “circuitous route of how I came to be involved” featured an actor he knew who was friends with a casting director in New York Williams had never met. But his name came up, and he was given the script. “I read it and I went, ‘Yes, please let me do this.’ I haven’t been looking at plays recently, because of my kids. But when I read it I thought, ‘this is really funny and strange and weird. The role is smart; the character goes through an enormous journey. He’s a smart, regular guy who is fully filled out as a human being. Men like that are under-represented in art,” he concluded with a playful tweak of Houdyshell, before making the wry observation that “I’m in a better position to be hired if no one has ever met me before.”
I suggested that the premise of the play (the four characters include two security guards and two women used to employing, as the press material puts it, “the five-finger discount”) and the feel of the way the production is being marketed leads me to believe that the show might appeal to people who love to go to independent cinema as much as to those who like to go to theatre. Houdyshell concurred: “It crosses that boundary. One thing that is so charming about it is that it has broad appeal; it will appeal to people who don’t necessarily see a lot of theatre. But it’s a thoughtful play, inherently theatrical. Avid theatergoers will appreciate it as well.”
This world premiere is written and directed by Morris Panych, a playwright and director better known in his home country of Canada than in the United States, although his play Vigil was seen about ten years ago at Studio Theatre. Many theatre people believe that it is unwise for a writer to direct his own play, that the perspective of a director other than the writer is more conducive to the successful development of and launching of a new play.
“I’ve always heard that saying and believed it for no reason,” Houdyshell began. “I’ve never worked on a play directed by the writer. But I don’t experience any conflict of interest. I find Morris very helpful. And he directs things other than his own work. He has directed a wide range of plays, classical as well as contemporary. He’s a very skilled, well-versed director, who worked for many years as an actor, and he has that vocabulary. His notes are very helpful. And it’s a work in progress, so he is making changes in the room, and he listens and is interested in what we have to say. The experience and the process have been very positive.”
After proclaiming Panych “a genius,” Williams allowed as how that conventional wisdom about directing one’s own play “makes no sense to me, in particular for a world premiere. That’s the one time a playwright should be there. He’s continuing to write; he re-wrote the second act.” Reiterating Houdyshell’s point about how Panych listens to the perspective of his actors, Williams concluded, “He takes to heart the difficulties of a person playing a role and having to bring that person to life.”
Although it’s a two-act play, Houdyshell says that it’s “brisk, not long. It’s quick and funny. He’s an economical writer. And one thing I love: there’s an unlikely and unexpected love story. It’s refreshing and beautiful, the way he’s written that element.”
“It’s absurd; it’s funny,” Williams continued, “with ideas I like, but you know what? Human beings populate this story. It’s not just ideas and not just people, it’s both, and if we embody these characters as full human beings, if we take it there — it’s a very funny play about important things. It will leave you to have your own attitudes, your own questions, about the intersection of these four people.” And he exuded confidence that they will indeed take it there: “It’s a great cast. It’s been kind of a ball, a freakin’ ball.”
Both actors had alluded earlier to a conversation they had been having about Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, and I asked them to tell me about it. Houdyshell began, “We both agree that Tennessee’s women are sublime to play, and Miller’s men, but if you aren’t of that gender — I’ve done Miller, and I’ve always felt short-changed as a female.”
“I was saying that I’m not a big fan of Williams,” said Delaney Williams about Tennessee Williams, arguing that TW gives the men short shrift just as Miller “doesn’t give his women as full a life as his men.” (DW knows about Miller men, having played Eddie Carbone at Arena in A View From the Bridge, and he said that “that play is given short-shrift if the character is played as a monster instead of as a human being.”)
And how does Houdyshell like DC, this being her first time doing a play here? She answered that what she’s seen of DC is the sidewalk between the actor housing and the theatre. “I’ve been buried in the play and rehearsal. Once we open, I look forward to exploring the city more. I’m impressed with the weather!” To which Williams delicately countered that the prospect of doing theatre in Washington at this time of year had caused him to ask himself, when taking the role, “What the fuck are you doing, doing a play in Washington in August?”
Closes October 19, 2014
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW Washington
Tuesday thru Sunday
Funnily enough, Williams and Houdyshell hadn’t met before working together on The Shoplifters, even though both have recurring roles on Law and Order: SVU. But since Houdyshell plays a family court judge and Williams plays a defense attorney, some of whose clients are among the more unsavory characters on the show, maybe it’s not so surprising that their paths haven’t crossed. In fact, Williams’ lawyer, John Buchanan, recurs so frequently that, I’m told, one of those marathon showings on a cable channel was organized around his character.
I asked Delaney Williams how much notice he typically gets before filming an episode, and he replied that one of the reasons he hasn’t done theatre in the last seven years was to keep open for the more lucrative, less time-intensive TV work, and that it’s usually two weeks or so before he knows that he will be needed for a TV shoot. That said, there was one episode directed by series star Mariska Hargitay, and Hargitay requested the Williams character be the lawyer in her episode, so he got more lead time when that happened.
Williams’ TV career really got traction when he was a regular on The Wire, which was, of course, filmed in and situated in Baltimore. But it’s impressive that an actor based in DC and living here with his family has been able to negotiate, from this base, a robust screen presence, because, “in case you didn’t know, you have to live in LA or New York” to get that kind of work, he said sarcastically, before talking about the strides that have been made recently, with high-profile projects for television being filmed in our area.
Houdyshell has, over the last decade or so, functioned in New York theatre in a role comparable to that of Nancy Robinette here. She’s the go-to actor for a certain type of role, and, in fact, though they don’t really look at all alike, the two have played a few roles in common. Every time you read a review in The New York Times of a play featuring Houdyshell, the praise is as consistent as the praise for a Barbara Cook cabaret show. It’s an enviable position for any actor to be in. How did she get there?
“I’ve been at this for 40 years now. My early career, the lion’s share of it, was exclusively in regional theaters, from bigger LORT [League of Regional Theatres] houses to smaller LORT houses to summer stock to non-Equity theatre, dinner theatre, children’s theatre. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a wide range of experience at a wide range of theaters in a wide range of roles, in musicals, straight plays, classical plays, modern plays, all of that. And one reason I was able to work as steadily as I did was that I was willing to travel. I didn’t get locked into being in one key city.
I was in the Midwest for the first six years; those were my non-Equity days. Then I was based in New York, but worked in larger and larger regional theaters. I was quite itinerant, on the move all the time. Then I got burnt out with the travel. I longed to be at home and to stay there. And I really wanted to work on new plays, and, in those days, in regional theatre, there was not a lot of new work being done. I made the decision to stop working out of town and to stay in New York 17 years ago. I bit the bullet,” she said, and she stopped working at all of the places where she had worked so hard to establish relationships. “And those were lean years. I wasn’t established, casting directors didn’t know me. Then I began to gain notice with certain projects, and things snowballed quickly.”
I asked about her role in Lisa Kron’s Well, suggesting that it was the project that really put her on the map. “It was a long, long journey, four and a half years. There were many readings, we did it Off-Broadway, then there were more workshops.” Finally, after a successful run at the Public Theatre, it transferred to Broadway and was her debut on the Great White Way. “At age 52.” (When Arena did Well, Robinette played the role that brought Houdyshell her first Tony nomination.)
Since then, her career has run the gamut from new plays at Off-Broadway theaters to the biggest hits on Broadway. “I was in it for eighteen months total,” Houdyshell said when I asked her about Wicked. She did nine months, then left, then came back for another nine months. For a New York actor, a gig like Wicked can be the rare dependable pay check in a career of uncertainty. “There are a lot of long-timers in Wicked. I had not been doing musicals for a lot of years. All of the sudden, I’m in this big, blockbuster, long-run hit. It’s an enormous show with a huge cast and staff and a big, full orchestra. I had a week before they put me into it.” She played Madame Morrible. “It was thrilling, in a way. I learned a tremendous amount. And it put me back in touch with how much I love musicals.”
“Wicked. That’s the green witch one?” asked Williams. Rather than embarrass Williams by pointing out that a theatre person asking that would be like a film person asking, “Titanic. That’s the iceberg one?”, Houdyshell graciously said yes and continued: “And, from that, I got other musical work.” Hearing that, I said,“Follies,” and a big, genuine smile crossed Houdyshell’s face. “That was fantastic, bliss, and such a surprise. My friend Linda Lavin was playing Hattie, and I was excited when it was announced that it was transferring” from its Kennedy Center run to Broadway.” “Eric did that, didn’t he?” asked Williams, referring to Eric Schaeffer, Artistic Director of Signature Theatre in Arlington and director of the productions of Follies in DC and NYC.
Houdyshell continued the story of her eventual involvement in the Broadway run. Lavin opted to take the Nicky Silver play The Lyons to Broadway, which meant that she couldn’t do two other projects she had been part of that were also headed to Broadway, the revival of Follies and the Jon Robin Baitz play Other Desert Cities. (It resulted in a Tony ceremony that year during which Lavin was nominated for The Lyons, Houdyshell was nominated as Hattie in Follies, and Judith Light was nominated and won for the Lavin part in Other Desert Cities.) Back to being cast in Follies, she told me that her agent called and asked, “Are you sitting down? They’d like you to play Hattie.” (Hattie is the chorine who sings the show-stopper “Broadway Baby.”)
Houdyshell remembers: “I was knocked over by it. I felt like Alice in Wonderland. We had a 28-piece orchestra and Jonathan Tunick’s original arrangements. It was very exciting. I love the score so much.” As she effused over the joys of musical theatre, Williams, with a sad poignancy informed by the fact that, after he could barely identify Wicked, the conversation was veering into classic Sondheim, said, “You people make me want to sing now.”
Just before the two were summoned back to rehearsal, I asked Houdyshell about her most recent Broadway gig, in the Romeo and Juliet starring Orlando Bloom, in which Houdyshell played The Nurse. (Another role that Houdyshell has shared with Robinette, by the way.) “It was a really interesting experience. It was my third time doing the play. I’d done it in stock and in regional theatre, but I was never the right age, so I was very happy to have the opportunity to do it. I knew early on that there would be a lot of cuts, and I was leery. Nobody escaped the cuts, and they were deep cuts. I didn’t know if I could fulfill the part the way I’d like to. I spoke to David Leveaux [the director], I fought for a few things, he reinstated a few things, and I ended up being very happy to do it. It was a delightful company. There was a contemporary sensibility about the way of approaching it and speaking the language, and that took a lot of the onus off of the role. It felt fresh for me and alive. I loved the Juliet [Condola Rashad], loved playing scenes with her. And the sound designer composed a complete score, with a lot of underscoring and live musicians, and he did the drums himself, beautiful, tribal music that was quite exciting to listen to.”
That designer, incidentally, is David Van Tieghem, who is collaborating with her again, and with Delaney Williams and Morris Panych, on The Shoplifters, doing original composition and sound design.
With that, it was time for the two to return to the rehearsal room, to the play and to the characters that have so engaged them. And to continuing to have a “freakin’ ball” together.
The Shoplifters, featuring Jayne Houdyshell, Delaney Williams, Jenna Sokolowski and Adi Stein,begins previews September 5 with official opening set for September 18, 2014.
[In the interest of full disclosure, in 1992 I directed a production of The Grapes of Wrath at Washington Shakespeare Company (now WSC Avant Bard) in which Delaney Williams played Pa Joad. The following year, we both acted in WSC’s production of The Tempest.]