"Is this the most casual position anyone's ever been in when you interviewed them?" asked Adam Pally, reclining on a low couch in the greenroom of Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theater. Not one to be outdone, Pally's costar Anna Chlumsky was off the sofa and wriggling her way under the coffee table without waiting for an answer.
The pair are currently costarring in the world premiere of Greg Pierce's Cardinal, which follows the conflict between an entrepreneur on a mission to save her failing Rust Belt town and the municipality's indecisive young mayor. But a decidedly more good-natured rivalry characterizes Pally and Chlumsky's goofy offstage relationship, despite the fact that two actors could hardly be coming at a play from more different angles: Chlumsky is a seasoned New York stage veteran, while Cardinal is Pally's first play — ever. "You never did kid plays, either?" asked a shocked Chlumsky.
"I was like a version of a theater geek in high school," explained Pally, an Upright Citizens Brigade alum. "But it was different. I was working in the TV studio all the time doing sketches and videos."
As Pally and Chlumsky's professional trajectories converge on the off-Broadway stage, they've discovered that their disparate paths have informed their craft in surprisingly similar ways. Plopping down over a complicated array of fresh-squeezed juices, the duo took a deep dive into their sitcom backgrounds (Pally in Happy Endings and Chlumsky in Veep), Olympics metaphors, and onstage nakedness.
What made each of you decide to take on this project?
Anna: Kate Whoriskey, honestly. Kate Whoriskey, Kate Whoriskey, Kate Whoriskey. I love Greg's writing, but really and truly it was that I've wanted to work for Kate for a very long time. And I could identify so much with the role, almost to the detriment where you're like, "Oh, that's the worst of me in there." So I knew it would be enough of a challenge to be interesting, but then the period on that sentence is Kate Whoriskey.
Adam: I wanted to do a play, I wanted to get better. I was feeling a little bit in a creative rut, and I wanted to do something that would be really difficult. I got to do it a little with this last movie I made, Band Aid — the dramatic stuff and long scenes — and I really enjoyed being directed by a woman and so I wanted to do that again.
[Pally takes a Postmates juice delivery.]
OK, now let's dissect my weird juice order. Oh, that's something new! I have to be in shape! I don't know if this will sell tickets, but we're in our underwear for a while…
Anna: Not a while!
Adam: It's quite a bit of time, Anna.
Anna: Not really if you math it out.
Adam: It's about five minutes.
Anna: It's half of a scene.
Adam: It's five to seven minutes.
Anna: Half of a scene out of 13 scenes
Adam: Which is more than in a movie! I've been totally naked in movies, but it's like that [snapping fingers], and the audience isn't like watching you walk around and bend over to pull your pants up. You know, they cut it.
I'll just say a 13th of the play.
Adam: A 13th of the play. Yeah, it's terrible that I'm like…
Anna: No, it's not! Most people don't go to work in their underwear. I mean dominatrices…and the Naked Cowboy.
Adam: Not to belabor this point because we should really move on, but I said to Chlumsky, I could see from the first time where this was going. They said Adam, why don't you try this in just a T-shirt? OK. And then it became, how about a tank top?
Anna: That T-shirt was very holey as well. So it was like the suggestion of skin, but it also had the suggestion of homelessness.
Adam: So it started leaning towards it and I thought OK, I'm going to have my shirt off here. But that's new to me. There's an intimacy and a commitment.
But it's nice also to do that because you get to learn stuff. I totally feel like I'm a better actor already. Chlumsky's also a five-time Emmy nominee, so it's like having an Olympic medalist be your personal ski instructor.
Anna: It wouldn't be an Olympic medalist though because I've never won an Emmy.
Adam: You won a SAG award the other night. Jesus Christ, Chlumsky. You're complaining about not winning an Emmy the day after you won a SAG award.
Anna: I'm not complaining, I just want you to have a fair metaphor! It's an Olympic athlete vs. medalist.
Adam: But it does feel like that. It feels very easy in that way.
How do your comedy backgrounds play into doing theater?
Anna: To me it all blurs, I grew up in musical theater as a kid, and I am very musical, and it's all just a part of the way you are. I'm not comedically trained. I'm not! I've never done improv. It terrifies me. People come at all of these things, being funny or being dramatic or whatever, from different places…The lines are what's funny. You still have to play your own stakes and so for me I never really distinguished comedy from tragedy.
Adam: You learn when you're going through improv, the best way to get a laugh is to be truthful. So here it feels the same way. Then in those moments where you think, "Well, this might be funny if I did this." You just want to make sure that that's what you think the mayor would do.
Anna: It's the Alfred Lunt thing right? It's "ask for the tea not for the laugh."
Adam: That's a reference that I am totally in the dark on! But I think that the thing with dramatic stuff, I'm learning, is that it's similar to comedy, it's just, because you're just trying to make the truthful choice in the moment. The difference is that you're not looking to surprise anyone with your reaction.
Anna: It's funny because I've said before that the craft of acting is the art of surprise. Because even in drama you're not supposed to know what's coming. So that would completely back up what you're saying: even if you're not looking for the laugh of the surprise, even if it's the opposite, you're still staying open to the unknown. "Discovering it," as Kate likes to say.
Adam: There's parts of this that do feel like a giant sketch show, when you're like running around and bringing props on. But it's still stagecraft!
Anna: It's still doing something in front of other people, and they stay seated and we don't.
Adam: I'm just used to doing it at the old UCB under Gristedes.
Anna: And now we're just on top of a pizza place. And by a methadone clinic, so you know.
Adam: It's all similar on that level. Still theater.
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