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Broadway Actress Jessica Stone Weaves Tragedy Into Comedy as She Takes On Directing

Absurd Person Singular and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike are two comedies on the stage veteran's docket.

Since her debut turn as Frenchy in the 1994 revival of Grease, Jessica Stone's career as a comic actress has consistently kept her on Broadway stages, with no more than five years separating each return. In recent years, however, the performer has transferred her comedic talents offstage to the director's chair.

"The first thing I did was about four years ago, which was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Williamstown," Stone says. "Then I was in a show for about a year and a half," she adds, failing to mention that said show was the Tony Award-winning revival of Anything Goes, starring Sutton Foster. After finishing up that production, Stone returned to Williamstown to direct Last of the Red Hot Lovers, and then, as she describes it, "jobs slowly started coming up."

She currently finds herself at the helm of two productions, opening within days of each other this month: Alan Ayckbourn's 1972 comedy Absurd Person Singular, at Red Bank, New Jersey's Two River Theater, and Christopher Durang's 2013 Tony-winning Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike, at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company. The second is a remount of her late mentor Nicholas Martin's original production, which Stone also helmed at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre this past summer. Stone chatted with TheaterMania about both of these upcoming projects — two labors of love that pay joyful homage to Martin and ring in a new year for her blossoming career as a bona fide director.

Jessica Stone is currently at the helm of Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular at Red Bank, New Jersey's Two River Theater and Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company.

How did Absurd Person Singular at Two River Theater come to you?
[Artistic Director] John Dias and I had been talking about different possibilities for collaborating. I have been hearing such amazing things about the theater for a couple of years now, and we just had a bunch of lovely meetings and he mentioned this play. I knew it but I hadn't read it in ages, so I read it and just fell in love with it.

What is it you love about the play?
I love how [Ayckbourn] lampoons human behavior with such wit. I just love how funny and human and mean these people are. It has to do with jockeying for status and what happens when a certain kind of man ascends to a certain position of power. I think it's still very relevant today.

Judging by your résumé, you seem to be attracted to comedies.
I am. Both as an actor and a director. I'm just really drawn to stories that make us look at ourselves and laugh about it. This play is so funny and so dark and I think it's kind of amazing that those two things can coexist. I think, in general, the truth in life is usually painful and funny, so there's something that really seems to be true within this play.

What was it that made you decide to begin focusing on directing rather than performing?
I had always been sort of a lippy actor. Insufferable, frankly — like the person that cares about someone else's costume and has opinions about the lights. Then over the years, I had many friends who were directors, and I started assisting them just to have something to do between my acting jobs. I assisted Joe Mantello and Nicky Martin and Chris Ashley and David Warren and they were all really informative experiences. Nicky in particular was a mentor and like a second father.

Jessica Stone with Colin Donnell in the 2011 Broadway revival of Anything Goes.
(© Joan Marcus)

You directed a production of Vanya and Sonia at the Old Globe in San Diego that's now coming to the Huntington in Boston. Did you assist Martin on the Broadway production of Vanya and Sonia?
I assisted him on Match. I actually had nothing to do with Vanya and Sonia. When they did it out at the Globe, Nicky was very sick…and they wanted someone to direct it in the spirit of Nicholas Martin. He and I were very, very close friends and had a similar sensibility. What was interesting about that experience is it's his physical production — the original set and props — but it was an entirely new cast. I had the original blocking, but I didn't want those actors to feel like they were just going through a put-in rehearsal, and so I said [to the actors], "I have this as a safety, but let's see where your instincts tell you to go." And nine times out of ten their instincts settled on what had been the original blocking. That was really interesting to me and I think speaks to our similar sensibility about the most satisfying way to tell a story. I'm not by any stretch suggesting that I am like Nicky but it was a very gratifying experience. He died about a week into rehearsals and it was actually a really lovely way to spend more time with him in spirit.

What do you think was the most significant thing you learned from him that you apply to your work as a director?
I think we might have slightly different styles…I am a little chattier. David Hyde Pierce said, "Being directed by Nicky is like being directed by elves." You think he's doing nothing and suddenly the whole thing is blocked. I've worked in many plays that Nicky directed and I think that's very true. But it's his sense of humor and his sense of humanity that I constantly check in with. Every day when I'm directing I think, What would Nicky do?