Talking to Laura Benanti “In The Next Room”
By: Isa Goldberg
Watching Laura Benanti one might imagine that success comes easily. With three Tony nominations and one Tony Award for her blazing performance in “Gypsy”, several recording albums, and a recurring role on TV’s “Eli Stone” behind her, one would never entertain the grueling spinal surgery that followed a potentially paralyzing pratfall in “Into the Woods”, or the loneliness and awkwardness she recalls feeling as a high school student. Regardless, she is in private conversation just as she is in public, lovely and unassuming.
IN YOUR YOUNG BUT ILLUSTRIOUS CAREER, YOU’VE PLAYED AN AMAZING RANGE OF CHARACTERS FROM SERIOUS ROMANTIC ROLES IN THE MUSICALS “NINE” AND YOUR TONY AWARD-WINNING PORTRAYAL OF GYPSY ROSE LEE IN “GYPSY”. YOU’VE ALSO PLAYED COMEDIC ROMANTIC HEROINES IN “WHY TORTURE IS WRONG, AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM” AND NOW “IN THE NEXT ROOM”.
HOW DID YOU EVER ACCOMPLISH NOT BEING TYPECAST?
I think it’s really very easy in all professions to get labeled; we’ve all kind of struggled with that. In some ways I had been typecast and these roles are an effort to break out of that.
DID YOU ACTIVELY SEEK THEM OUT?
Yes, I did. I read the Christopher Durang play (“Why Torture is Wrong”) and I auditioned for it. And I did the same for this new production. They certainly were not handed to me.
ON ANOTHER NOTE, WHAT WAS BEHIND YOUR DECISION TO STEP DOWN FROM THE ROLE YOU WERE PLAYING IN “THE VIOLET HOUR”?
That is a play I loved very much and a character I loved very much, but ultimately the director and I just did not see eye-to-eye. And I adore Rich Greenberg as well as the other cast members so much that I did not want to contribute to an ugly working environment. I also did not want to have my first New York straight play experience be something that I knew ultimately would not be good for me. You have to feel supported and loved by your director in order to make things work.
HOW DID YOU FIND WORKING WITH LES WATERS, THE DIRECTOR OF “IN THE NEXT ROOM”?
He’s so supportive and he’s so smart and creative. Both he and Sarah Ruhl (the playwright) are terrific collaborators. And they love actors. Some directors and writers look at actors not as a tool but as a nuisance…like we’re children. But Les and Sarah love actors and when you feel loved you’re more able to do your best work.
DID SARAH RUHL GET INVOLVED IN THE REHEARSAL PROCESS?
Yes, Sarah was there almost every day. It’s very different to be able to have the playwright in the room and say well “What did you mean by this?”. It was the same thing with Chris Durang; he was around too. It‘s really very helpful.
WERE EITHER THE DIRECTOR OR THE PLAYWRIGHT WILLING TO MAKE CHANGES AS YOU EVOLVED WITH THE CHARACTER?
Well, the changes came from them. I certainly don’t feel impertinent enough to say “I think you should do this”. If there was a major concern that came up like gosh this feels really funky here, we would look at it. And either they would figure out a way to help me -or whoever was asking – make it work, or Sarah is amazing at saying, “You know you’ve skipped this word four times in a row and I think your actor’s instinct is right. I think we should cut it”.
MOST OFTEN THE CHARACTERS YOU PLAY ARE KIND OF SEXY.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT PLAYING THE SEXUALLY REPRESSED MRS. GIVINGS IN THIS CURRENT PRODUCTION?
Well, the sexually repressed Mrs. Givings is much closer to me than any other character. In life I am not a sexy person. I am a nerdy, gawky person. It’s really true. My friends would attest that I am much nerdier than anyone would ever imagine. And more than nerdy, I’m goofy. So Mrs. Givings’ awkward way of being is much more comfortable to me than “Gypsy” or “Nine” or being sort of a smoldering person. That’s one hundred percent acting without drawing on anything from my real life.
IN CREATING THIS ROLE, HOW DID YOU ADDRESS THE FACT THAT THE PLAY IS BOTH A CONTEMPORARY COMEDY AND A PERIOD PIECE THAT’S SET IN THE VICTORIAN ERA?
That’s an amazing question because the Tuesday night before our invited dress rehearsal we put on the clothes and wigs for the first time and I did not know what to do with myself. I was a mess. I was so stiff, playing into the costumes, playing into the era and it was not at all what it needed to be. And then Les said “use less Elizabeth Taylor and more Laura. You need to be your goofy self. Allow that to come through and don’t worry about talking the way we think they spoke back them. No one knows how they sounded”.
It’s really important for the audience to know that this is an American play and not about the “that’s Marvelous darling” way of talking. These characters just happen to have different clothes on. So he and Sarah helped me so much and the next evening I was able to go in and completely alter my perception of the character.
But there is a fine line because the tone of the play is difficult in and of itself, and then you add on to that the time period, and it gets even trickier.
THAT TO ME IS WHAT STANDS OUT ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER. THE FACT THAT SHE IS NOT A CLICHÉ OF THE DRAWING ROOM.
We assume that they were all buttoned up and certainly when it came to protocol I’m sure they were. But behind closed doors they’re just people. It’s not like all of a sudden we invented the modern day chip that made us feel differently.
WHAT DO YOU SEE ABOUT THE CHARACTER YOU’RE PLAYING THAT MIGHT BE RELEVANT TO YOUNG WOMEN TODAY?
I think there’s a common theme which is that in life, no matter in what era, people want to be seen fully for who they are. They want to be seen and they want to be known and I think Katherine doesn’t have words for that.
This is a pre-Freudian world we’re talking about. It was not a time when people sat around in armchairs and looked at themselves from a psychological point of view. They didn’t have the language to understand what they were feeling. So for Katherine, all she knows is: “I want something. I don’t know what it is. But I’m going to get it. I’m going to do whatever I can to get it”. I think that’s why she’s grasping at straws. “This will make me feel better. And then this will make me feel better”, until finally she realizes that the only thing that’s going to make her feel better is being seen for who she is by her husband, the man who she loves the most in the world.
THAT’S A WONDERFUL PERSPECTIVE ON THIS PLAY WHICH IF I HAD TO SUM IT UP IS ABOUT SEX, OR ABOUT WOMEN BEING ABLE TO EXPERIENCE THEMSELVES AS SEXUAL BEINGS.
But I think it goes deeper than that. I think it’s as spiritual beings. What’s so striking about setting it in this time period is that it wasn’t sexual because they didn’t know what that means.
They thought it was science, or on some level in Katherine’s case, magic. I really think that it’s not about the sexual pleasure; it’s about the emotional release.
AT THE END, YOU BRING THE PLAY TO A CLIMAX IN A ROLE REVERSAL BETWEEN YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND, THE CHARACTER PLAYED BY MICHAEL CERVERIS. AS AN EXPERIENCED STAGE STRIPPER, HOW DOES IT FEEL TO HELP SOMEONE ELSE STRIP FOR YOU?
You know I feel very protective of him because the audience is certainly not quiet when he starts to take his clothes off. There is a lot of chattering, a lot of nervous laughter, and a lot of talking. And I feel very protective of Michael in those moments. I really do.
IT IS A SPECTACTULAR CONCLUSION TO THE PLAY… A SURREAL ADVENTURE.
I think so, too. I think it’s also symbolic. People are looking at it as just purely sex, and maybe it’s not as beautiful to them. But the idea of him being stripped of his confinements is so beautiful.
“In The Next Room” is a Lincoln Center production at the Lyceum Theater at 149 West 45th Street. Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets call Telecharge at 212-239-6200, go to telecharge.com or visit the box office.