Christine Lahti
Christine Lahti
Except for a brief stint in The Exonerated, it's been 15 years since Christine Lahti has graced a New York stage -- during which time she won an Emmy for her work on the CBS-TV series Chicago Hope, an Oscar for directing the short film Lieberman and Love, and has worked steadily in every medium, while raising three children. Now, the 58-year-old actress is finally back in the Big Apple starring in Primary Stages' production of Lee Blessing's A Body of Water. TheaterMania recently spoke to Lahti about the play, returning to New York, and working with Beyonce.

THEATERMANIA: This show came about for you after Margaret Colin, the original star, dropped out because of a scheduling conflict. How did you get involved, especially so quickly?
CHRISTINE LAHTI: I worked with the director, Maria Mileaf, on the Geffen Playhouse production of Third and we knew we wanted to work together again. She's wonderfully collaborative and lets an actor explore before imposing her ideas; she shapes the performance, but never puts boundaries. That's a wonderful gift. And as a woman, she understands the real deep emotional subtext of the play. So she called me to do this a few weeks ago, and when I read the play, it was a no-brainer. I have wanted to do a play in New York for so long, but I have two kids in high school and one in college, so I haven't been able to travel much. But right now, my husband (award-winning director Thomas Schlamme) isn't working and he was able to stay in California and be the primary parent. He's a great father, so they're in good hands.

THEATERMANIA: Was it difficult coming in on short notice?
CL: We still ended up with the standard three-week rehearsal. But normally I learn my lines before I start rehearsals and I couldn't do that here. But Lee's lines are really easy to learn because he writes very conversationally. And I do love something that challenges me; if something doesn't scare me, I don't see the reason to do it.

TM: Tell me about what attracted you to the script?
CL: One of the things I love about the play is that it's about finding humor in the worst possible situations. What can be a worse scenario than waking up naked in bed next to a man and not knowing where you are or who he is? That said, I think everyone can relate to the feeling of being really alone. And in the past, there were times where I might have woken up next to someone, and in harsh light of a new day thought "who is this man?" Plus, even though the play is strange and mysterious, there are a lot of real universal needs going through it. It's about having a second chance and finding a way of forgiveness and way to start again.

TM: What is it like acting in a small space like Primary Stages?
CL: After working in places like the Ahmanson and the Geffen, it's fun to be in such an intimate space and have the audience really be part of it. In some ways, it feels more like film. It's nice not worrying about projecting too much. And because I used to do so much Off-Broadway, I am used to it.

TM: This is you first time working with your co-stars, Michael Cristofer and Laura Odeh. What has that experience been like?
CL It's fantastic being married to Michael on stage; I don't think I have seen him in a play for 30 years. He is very present and alive, with a lot of power and a lot of vulnerability. I think there's a great balance between us. Laura is phenomenal; her talent is fierce. Because our onstage relationship is so fraught with pain, guilt, and shame, I think we consciously didn't connect much during rehearsals. But once you share a dressing room, things change.

TM: Now that you're back in New York, what's your offstage agenda?
CL: Until opening night, I'm really just focused on learning my lines, rehearsals, performances, and sleeping. But once we get past that, I want to see everything I can on Broadway and Off-Broadway -- I miss seeing that kind of theater -- and I have a lot of friends here I want to connect with.

TM: What's next for you career-wise?
CL: I am trying to set up this film about a mother-daughter relationship that I want to direct. I'm discovering even low-budget indie films need stars to get financing. So I offered the mother part to actresses with bigger names than me and they were busy. Now, I might go ask other people or take the part myself; I'm kind of torn about which way to do. Meanwhile, this movie I did with Chazz Palminteri called Yonkers Joe has been picked up by Magnolia and it's going to open for Oscar consideration at the end of the year before a wide release in January. And I have another movie coming out next year, a thriller called Obsessed, in which I play a detective, which was lot of fun. Beyonce plays this "wronged wife," and it was mind-blowing how good she is. She really knocked it out of the park. Frankly, I'm kind of pissed she's that talented and that beautiful. But on the other hand, if it's a big hit, it would be first big hit I've ever been in -- and I think at this point in my career that could be really fun!