Laura Benanti
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
Laura Benanti
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
Having spent the better part of a year playing one of the most demanding roles in musical theater -- Louise/Gypsy in Gypsy -- and winning practically every award (including the Tony) for her portrayal, Laura Benanti was prepared for a bit of a break from acting. But then a funny thing happened: She read Christopher Durang's new play Why Torture Is Wrong, And the People Who Love Them , now in previews at the Public Theater, and decided she had to pursue the lead role of Felicity, a woman doubting the sanity of her recently wed husband (played by Amir Arison) and her parents (played by Kristine Nielsen and Richard Poe).

"It takes a lot for me to laugh out loud," says Benanti. "But when I was reading this script on the train, I laughed so hard the people near me thought I was crazy. And then when I read it again, I also realized that like Felicity, I've always felt a little like a fish out of water. All my friends say I'm so 'regular' for an actor, and I think that's part of what I connected to in this play. Then I had my husband, Steven Pasquale, read it, and he said 'you are Felicity -- you have to do this.'"

So Benanti agreed to audition for Durang and director Nicholas Martin. "I believe wholly in auditioning," she says. "For one thing, you're auditioning them as much as they're auditioning you, and that's the only way to make sure everything is right for everyone. Plus, you go into the rehearsal room knowing they liked you best, and that helps me feel like I'm on equal footing with the director. Plus, I've always wanted to work with Nicky, and it's more than lived up to my expectations. He's so loving and full of life and energy."

During rehearsals -- which Benanti admits is not her favorite part of the theatrical process -- she's learned even more about her character. "I think Felicity is the kind of grown-up I've become, which is something I haven't been able to show on stage before. For example, I'm far more sarcastic and funny than people would realize; during Gypsy, Patti [LuPone] used to ask me why I didn't do stand-up," she says. "But what's also really interesting is that in the musicals I've done, my characters always take these huge journeys, and as Nicky has pointed out, Felicity doesn't really change. So in a way, it means I don't have to do as much as I'm used to; but what's harder is that I also have to keep the forward momentum of the play going for everyone else, while they get all the wacky lines."

The play marks Benanti's first-time working Off-Broadway, just as her husband is making his Broadway debut in Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty. "Off-Broadway does feel very different. It's much more communal, with all the women sharing a dressing room. I've always had my own dressing room on Broadway, and now I want to smack myself for some of the things I complained about when I was 21," she says. "And this is the first time Steven's had his own dressing room; he's been asking me all these questions about how to decorate it. I am so glad he's finally getting to fulfill that dream."

In reasons, Pasquale plays Kent, a rather crude and thuggish factory worker, a part in which he's cast decidedly against type, says Benanti. "I went to the invited dress rehearsal, and five minutes into it, I forgot he was my husband, and I was able to hate him along with the rest of the audience," she says. "Luckily, he's not the type of actor who brings his character home -- not that I would allow that in this case."

Benanti is finally planning to take some time off during the summer -- although she does want to devote some of her free time to creating a nightclub act -- and has a possible project lined up for fall, which she can't talk about. But for now, she's 100 percent focused on bringing Felicity to life. "I hope people come see the play with an open mind about me. I know it's such a different character than the ones I've played, and I do feel a little extra pressure. I'm basically a people-pleaser and I always worry about letting other people down," she says. "But ultimately, my main objective is to serve the play and give Chris the character he's envisioned."