Anita Gillette
(© David Gordon)
Anita Gillette
(© David Gordon)
Dan LeFranc's challenging new play The Big Meal, now at Playwrights Horizons under the direction of the red-hot Sam Gold, focuses on several generations of a family, from the meet-cute moment that Sam and Nicole hook up in a coffee shop, through their courtship, marriage, and parenting, right to the ends of their lives.

Various actors of differing ages play the characters -- switching generations as time passes, while the play jumps forward in time incrementally -- including beloved stage and television star Anita Gillette. "I fall for stuff all the time if it's promising, and this play was just so interesting to me," Gillette says of her attraction to the project.

The actress initially plays Sam's alcoholic grandmother, Alice, but she ends up as the aged Nicole in a nursing home. The character changes are subtle; for example, when she moves from Alice to the older Nicole. "I take off my lipstick, which I put on very dark for Alice," she says. "And then I just try to pull my bangs off my face so that you can see my forehead--sort of being body-wise, a little older, a little different."

But the most difficult aspect for Gillette was that LeFranc's characters talk over one another frequently. "I would go into rehearsal knowing all my lines and get up there, and somebody would start talking really fast, and I didn't hit the right place in their sentence," Gillette says. "You have to find out when you're the A conversation and when you're the B, and when a breath means a difference whether the line is heard or not. The precision that takes is like climbing Mount Everest."

Now 75, Gillette has been facing theatrical challenges for decades from her first Broadway show Gypsy, through Carnival, All-American, Mr. President, and Chapter Two, for which she received a Tony Award nomination. But this play is altogether different, she notes. "People have compared this play to Thornton Wilder," she says. "With the time going forward right in front of our eyes, and nothing to indicate that it's changing, I think it's a challenge for everybody."

Her musical training helped sort out the timing, she adds. "The question is finding out which instrument you were at what time, and how long your rests were. It's just like an orchestra. You really have to get that sense of rhythm."

Gillette credits Gold for pulling it all together. "He's like a captain guiding a ship in a way. If there's one little thing out of order, he knows it, he feels it, he sees it, and he explains why it needs to be fixed," she says.

Following The Big Meal, Gillette's next course will be a vacation in London, where her beau lives -- but she's far away from retiring. Her grandchildren are waiting for the broadcast of her episode of Shake It Up, a Disney Channel show in which she plays a dancing granny, and there's also a chance she might turn up again on NBC's 30 Rock.

Moreover, she had a successful one-night run of her solo autobiographical piece, After All at Birdland in January, and she plans to tour it throughout Florida and in San Francisco this summer, with a possible return engagement in New York as well.

If that wasn't enough, she and actress Penny Fuller are discussing a collaboration. "We're old friends, and we did something at the O'Neill Theatre Center that we think might have legs," she says. "So we might start working on that soon."