It's been 15 years since Marcia Gay Harden last graced a Broadway stage -- as the unhappy Harper Pitt in Angels in America -- but the Oscar-winning actress is jazzed up for her return to the Great White Way in Yazmina Reza's God of Carnage. In the play, she and Sopranos star James Gandolfini play a pair of parents who engage in a battle with another couple (played by Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels) after their 11-year-old sons get into an altercation.
While Reza originally set the play in Paris -- and that setting remained for the show's celebrated London production -- it's been moved to Brooklyn for its American outing. "Yazmina felt it was the right thing to do; it's actually the first time she's ever done this with one of her plays and it's really wonderful for the four of us," she says. "It makes it more pertinent. You don't want people looking at it and then going, 'well, in France, you know, they're like that.' We want audiences to realize that this is a human experience, and Americans tend to be more likely to do that when it's set in their own backyard."
Harden, whose son Thaddeus is 12 years old, says she certainly relates to the situation presented in the play. "There is nothing more tense than parents getting together to discuss whose child is at fault; and the snarkier the conversation gets, the funnier its gets," she says. "Our director, Matthew Warchus, says the play is a funny tragedy, and I think that makes it better than just a comedy, because it has a resonance that will stay with you. In fact, James saw it in London, and when he walked out of the theater, he was taken with how people were so energized by the play when they came out."
As for working with this group of actors -- all of whom are onstage for the entirety of the show's 80-minute running time -- Harden couldn't be more excited. "It's like we're a musical quartet and each of us is playing a different instrument, and as we're playing our music together, it's really coming alive," she says. "Ultimately, the play is about how we try to be true to the best of ourselves, but how that just keeps feeling apart. But the worse it gets for our characters, the better it is for the audiences watching us."
Nick Adams gained a lot of attention when he took over the role of Larry in the recent Broadway revival of A Chorus Line -- as well as for coming out as an openly gay actor -- and he's generating even more talk for his work in Des McAnuff's new revival of Guys and Dolls. While he plays various roles, including gangster Liver Lips Louie, it's his brief appearance in the show's unusual opening sequence that's generating the most chatter.
"I am boxing with John Selya, who is such an inspiration to me," he says. "The idea is that we're inviting audiences to the world of Damon Runyon [who wrote the short stories on which the musical is based] through these vignettes of New York City in the 1930s where you meet all sorts of characters. And yes, John and I are really throwing punches at each other. I had never boxed before, but I had worked out at Gold's Gym and watched some of the boxers there. And it turns out boxing is a really good workout. It's not something I thought I'd ever be into, but I think I am going to keep taking boxing classes at my gym."
The dancing in this show is quite different from A Chorus Line, he says. "Sergio Trujillo's choreography is definitely challenging; it's really masculine and athletic. But the biggest thing is that my hardest dancing here is in act two, whereas in A Chorus Line, the opening was the hardest part. So I have to be ready to keep my energy up for the whole show."
Unlike most actors, Adams didn't appear in a high school production of the musical -- although he did see it for the first time around then. "I have to say I wasn't the hugest fan of the show based on seeing it then, but now that I've read the original stories and worked on it, I see how sophisticated a show it really is," he says. "And I just love working with this cast. Craig Bierko and Kate Jennings Grant (who play Sky and Sarah) have such undeniable chemistry; Lauren Graham is really terrific as Miss Adelaide; and Oliver Platt, who is our Nathan Detroit, is really the ringleader of our show. He's very caring -- he knows everyone's name -- and he really keeps the action going for all of us."
As theater veterans know, the chance to see Penny Fuller do any role is a treat, but it's particularly exciting that the versatile star is getting an opportunity to play Desiree Armfeldt in the White Plains Performing Arts Center's star-studded production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, March 5-22, opposite Mark Jacoby, Sheila Smith, Erin Davie and Stephen J. Buntrock. As it happens, Fuller says she hasn't seen Night Music since its original 1975 Broadway production. "I don't think back then I ever thought I'd be old enough to play Desiree," she says with a laugh. "But now, I'm aware that for any actress who is no longer the ingenue, it's 'that part.' And it can be hard to live up to those expectations, and I hope everyone can put them aside and enjoy what I'm doing."
Having played a number of other actresses on stage -- such as Cabaret's Sally Bowles, Applause's Eve Harrington, and The Elephant's Man's Mrs. Kendal -- Fuller has had valuable experience playing a member of her own profession. "I think it's second nature now to play an actress, though in the earlier days, I did worry about how to dramatize being one on the stage," she says. "Of course, the big difference is that Eve and Sally were at the beginning of their careers, when they wanted it all, and Desiree has had it all and would like a little less of it, or maybe less often, and that's something I understand. I still like to tour, but only when I want to."
Fuller is still happy to go out of town for the right project, like Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate, which will come to Hartford Stage in April, having played Broadway earlier this season. "I like not being home sometimes, because there's less of the daily grind every day," she says. "So you can do things like explore a city or go to museums. But it's always nice to come home."
THE ROAD TO RUINED
Audiences can be forgiven for forgetting the first time they saw Condola Rashad -- since she was actually in the womb of her mother Phylicia Rashad during one season of The Cosby Show. But it will be impossible to forget her stunning and thoroughly believable performance as Sophie, an abused and mutilated Congolese girl, in Lynn Nottage's critically acclaimed Ruined at Manhattan Theatre Club. Even more extraordinarily, Ruined -- which originated last fall at Chicago's Goodman Theatre -- marks Rashad's first professional job after graduating college last year.
"I was immediately drawn to this script and I thought it would be so awesome if I got the part." she says. "Lynn is one of my favorite people and favorite playwrights. I remembered loving Intimate Apparel, and my last year in college, I actually did one of her plays called Las Meninas. But when I had my first audition for Ruined, Congolese dialect was nowhere on my resume, and I thought 'how do I fudge this?' So in my head, I used the accent from the movie Hotel Rwanda, which was actually Rwandan. And because my character sings, I had to sing as well -- so I used a song from The Lion King, because I thought it would be good for both the way I sing and how Sophie sings. And it all worked out."
In researching the role, Rashad watched documentaries about the Congo and looked at lots of photographs, but it wasn't until she played the role of Sophie, that her character's plight really took hold. "It took me quite a long time to go as deep as I needed to go, both mentally and physically," she says. "I think I realized I had done it one day when my mom said to me 'why are you walking like that?' because I was actually walking like Sophie offstage. Now, it does get a little overwhelming at times, but I just find a way to breathe it out and leave her at the theater."
Given her heritage, it might seem like Rashad's career was preordained, but she says that's only partially true. "I grew up in rehearsal rooms, because my mom would take me with her everywhere, but she really allowed me to be a kid and find out that there were other things I liked to do. For a while, I even followed in the path of my father, [sports legend Ahmad Rashad]. I think I was trying to butter him up. So I was on the track team, and I played soccer and basketball. But eventually, I ended up back on my mom's side. Honestly, I can remember being younger and watching her and thinking 'I can do better than that so I have to grow up and become an actress and show her how it's done.' And now, both my parents are so supportive of me -- even though it drove my mom crazy that I wouldn't let her read Ruined before she saw it."