Two-time Tony Award nominee Alison Fraser (The Secret Garden) currently stars in the new play Love Therapy by Australian playwright Wendy Beckett (A Charity Case). The not-so-villainous actress plays Madge, a good-natured Irish waitress, in the show about inappropriate doctor-patient relationships. She can also currently be seen in the hit television drama Smash as well as the popular Web series It Could Be Worse. TheaterMania made an appointment to speak to Ms. Fraser about her role in Love Therapy and her other new and exciting projects.
How did you get involved with Love Therapy?
Alison Fraser: I had worked Wendy Beckett last year on a show called A Charity Case, which she also directed. We had a wonderful time and it's a very provocative piece. Then, about eight months after that, I got a call from her saying, "Hey I've written another play and I'd like you to be a part of it," and she had written this wonderful [role] of Madge.
[It] is again a very provocative play, about therapists [who] have inappropriate relationships with their clients. I play...her confidante, her older friend; I'd say almost a mother figure, who has quite a different take on therapy than all of the clients and therapists [who] we see in this piece. Madge is Irish, and of course there's the joke, "psychiatry works on everybody except the Irish," so she has that attitude and it's interesting to get the two different perspectives of the people [who] have therapy. [It] is very much a part of their lives and the people who eschew it. I think there's a happy medium between the two exchanges and hopefully those in need will find it.
What interested you in the character of Madge?
AF: I have become sort of known for doing a lot of parts that might be considered the villain of the piece. I did Charles Busch's The Divine Sister [and] right after that David Ives' The School for Lies. Right now I'm very involved in the new Web series that has sort of taken off called It Could Be Worse, [with] Wesley Taylor and Mitchell Jarvis. I think that my character of Veronica Bailey is Alexis Carrington meets Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. It's fun and I'm having a ball, but because I do so many villains, for Wendy to cast me in absolutely the polar opposite of that [is great].
Madge is very warm, very pragmatic, very sympathetic, and very empathetic, and it's interesting that Wendy saw that in A Charity Case. I would say that in A Charity Case I was handed a part that definitely could have been construed as the villain of the piece. I really felt that Wendy allowed me to explore the humanity of a woman [who] has [committed] actions that could be perceived as reprehensible, so when she wrote me this wonderful, warm part, I was like, "Thank you, Wendy! You see that I'm not a villain; I'm sweet as pie. Thank you very much."
Also, my philosophy about playing villains is that you never play that villain as a villain, but you play the villain as the hero of their own piece. Villains don't think of themselves as villains. Villains think of themselves as the leading player of their own scenario, and that's the hero.
What are some of the differences between working on a new show vs. a revival?
AF: I love doing new shows, especially when the author is there, because as an actor I don't always know when it's right, but I [do] always know when it's wrong, and if it doesn't feel organic…to be able to actually go to the playwright and say, "Can this be tweaked at all? I'm having trouble making this connection here," and more often than not, if they trust their actors, they say, "Hey, OK, great, let's change it," and then we get to...Just the option of change is such a wonderful thing in a room where playwrights and directors are amenable to exploration.
Is there a show you've worked on that has stayed with you for a long time?
The Secret Garden. Rarely a week goes by [when] I don't get some sort of e-mail or Facebook message from somebody [who] says, "Oh my God, Secret Garden, I wish I had a Martha in my life — that show changed my life." It's really amazing. When you are lucky enough…privileged enough to be part of the creative process of a new piece, for me it's just a great high and now that high is extending to this Web series It Could Be Worse.
What are the differences between working on a Web series vs. a television show?
AF: When I did Smash this season, I had a ball! First of all, it was for a director I know and love and [I] was playing a really fun part. We're all friends on set and [there's] Henry Stram, [whom] I love, and [I] know Bernadette Peters. It's a whole bunch of really friendly people like Anjelica Huston [who] couldn't have been nicer, and Megan Hilty. I happened to be standing next to Wesley, who plays Bobby on the show, and he and Mitchell had, unbeknownst to me, been talking about me doing this diva part of Veronica in their [Web] show. I had a ball doing Smash because I was relaxed. The Web series is so different because there isn't all that pressure. There aren't 25 union members standing around, rolling their eyes because I messed up my line.
Also, a really great thing is, even though these are spectacularly well-written, occasionally they'll let you go. You know that whole meltdown scene that I do as Veronica? That was [improvised]. I think the only thing that was actually written was, "Stupid, stupid," and I just went off. I'm like, I'm not going to stop until they tell me to stop. And, I look around and you see this absolutely gorgeous chorus girl who's like six foot two and something clicks in Veronica's brain, "What is she, Amazon Beyoncé? Why would you put me next to Amazon Beyoncé? She's going to make me look like an Oompa Loompa! A Hobbit! You told me you'd have short, fat girls!" It was hilarious and I never for a second thought that it would be used. I was just basically trying to shake myself off from my own nerves because the very first shot I had was Veronica dancing. Andre Ward, brilliantly playing the choreographer, had all these beautiful chorus girls around Veronica. That's not what I do. Dance calls are really the reason why I had to carve this other kind of career out because I can't do them. I cold-sweat, shake — and I said to my agents it might cost me work, but I can't do it. I think that's human, and even though Veronica is very funny and over the top, I think that a lot of her behavior is fueled by insecurity.
How do Wendy Beckett's plays differ from others you have worked on and what type of response do they elicit?
AF: [Wendy] doesn't write plays like everybody else. Her plays have a lot of ellipses in them. A lot of plays hand you everything on a plate and [hers] don't. [They] absolutely require the audience to think a lot. What I have to say about the first experience I had with Wendy [is], because A Charity Case dealt with such a hot subject — which is the adoptive mother, biological mother, difficult-child triangle — we had a lot of adoptees and adoptive parents in the audience, and therapists too. The talkbacks were so intense and weren't even sanctioned. They were just people in the lobby [who] needed to talk about the play and then their own experiences.
My stance on Love Therapy is, it deals with such a touchy subject: therapists having physical relationships with their vulnerable patients, [and] I think that we're going to get some very volatile talkbacks on this. I think that Wendy [is] yet again going to present something to the New York theatergoing public that they haven't seen before and, my guess is, it's going to really spark off some interesting conversations.