Kathleen Chalfant and Kate Mulgrew Sled Down the Luge Track of Off-Broadway's Somewhere Fun
The veteran actresses discuss their work in Jenny Schwartz's new drama about love and death.
They've never worked together before, but it's as though veteran stage actresses Kathleen Chalfant and Kate Mulgrew, now starring in Jenny Schwartz's Somewhere Fun at the Vineyard Theatre, are connected at the brain. Almost in unison they sing the praises of the off-Broadway mainstay for shepherding this difficult play about love, death, and lost friendships through various workshops. They also speak highly of their director, Anne Kauffman, for being able to bring to life marvelous stage directions like [SPOILER ALERT] "Rosemary has melted."
TheaterMania sat down with the ladies in the Vineyard green room following a recent student matinee performance to talk about their relationship, on stage and off. What follows are excerpts from the long-ranging conversation.
How did you get involved with Somewhere Fun?
Kate Mulgrew: I've been with it from the beginning, which is about two and a half years, maybe longer. I was asked to do the very first workshop, at which I was handed, I think, eight pages of dialogue. From there it's grown beautifully. I committed myself to it immediately, because I think it's extraordinary. She's a genius, Jenny Schwartz. It's been a great pleasure and a privilege to be with it all the way through.
Kathleen Chalfant: I came in the second or third workshop, and I felt exactly as Kate did. We had a wonderful time working with each other, too. All during the developmental process, because people get work, we've kept an eye on each other…Jenny is such an important new and authentic and unique voice. It's so exciting. We were saying last night…that it has been such a journey unlike anything any of us have ever taken. We've all done a lot of developmental theater, been involved with a lot of extraordinary pieces of work, but the way this has grown, the way it has found itself, has been…
KC: Unprecedented in my experience.
Had you two worked together in the past?
KC and KM (in unison): Never!
KM: This has also been…
KC and KM (in union): Great.
KM: A delight.
KC: We have friends in common, and we knew each other's work.
KM: There was an understanding [of] the standard.
Has not having had a previous relationship made this experience, playing long-lost friends, easier or more difficult?
KM: I don't think it's about the friendship. It's about missing the friendship. [Our characters] Evelyn and Rosemary aren't — she can't bother from her nails to help me.
KC: They probably weren't friends.
KM: I think there was a pocket in history, they had their kids in Central Park, under the tree, and then it just sort of eroded. They just sort-of lost each other.
KC: In the same way that they lost their children.
KM: Pretty amazing for a thirty-eight-year-old woman to grasp all this.
And to be able to write so convincingly about death. The thought of death just…
KM: Paralyzes you.
KC: It's much more frightening when you're twenty-eight than when you're sixty-eight. I'm sixty-eight, and I don't know why that is. I used to be, I could keep myself awake thinking about death.
KM (To KC): Well, because you had life. (To DG) And you're just getting started.
Has the play changed much over the course of previews?
KC: [Yes. We found] the style of it…and [discovered] that we're all playing the same play. It's nine people, and nine people from wildly different experiences…
KC: Styles. And sometime in the middle of last week, I think…
KM: It coalesced.
KC: it began to play. And the audience started to come along.
KM: She does have a very definite music. Everyone has to be in the same symphony.
Is it nerve-wracking, as an actor, to have to wait that long for a production to finally start really playing?
KM: Opening night is always nerve-wracking.
KC: The judging period, whenever it is…is awful because you are doing two things. On the one hand you are trying to make the play work for itself, and on the other hand, trying to get past the judges.
KM: Whether they're critics or your peers, it doesn't make much difference. It's only when opening night is over that you can — this has always been my way — really dive in.
KC: And you begin to play the play. People always should come back later.
KM: I totally agree.
KC: The other thing that must be said is through this journey, the people here at the Vineyard have been endlessly and ceaselessly supportive.
KM: They've shepherded it. That's what the Vineyard does, unlike any other theater that I know of. They foster new work, they believe in it, and they take it through. They believe in Jenny.
It's an epic play, too, for the generation of four-person shows with one set.
KM: Good word.
KC: Indeed, a nine-character play with three acts.
KM: Where are you going to find something like this out of the brain of a thirty-eight-year-old girl?
A play with such a definite rhythm that you can probably get thrown off course if you skip a single word.
KM: As Kathleen and I have discussed, it's a bit like taking a ride. I call it the luge, because you can't let go for one second. You can't think or anticipate the corner, because you'll lose the corner.
KC: And if you do, you're gone.
KM: And it's just GONE.
KC: You hope you don't do it too often, to go up or skip, in part because the language is so important.
KM: She's so precise, that to meet that precision is really fun.
And then, Kate, you melt. I must admit I'm still thinking about what that means.
KC: The immediate [thought] is the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. And so then all the rest of it – and that's the other thing that Jenny does, to riff on cultural tropes, so you get that idea because there's a lot of Wizard of Oz through it, and then you figure out what are, in fact, the implications of that. What does it mean to melt? What would it mean to melt?
KM: It means that you quickly have to get into a grey wig and a robe! [Laughs]
KC: And you get to have that wonderful visual of the blackout.
KM: The melting, in Rosemary's case, is grief. Everybody's grief is so personal. I melt the way I melt.
KC: And all of the naturalistic special effects have been slowly taken away. It used to be that Rosemary bled. They tried a variety of ways of… Beatrice not [having] a face. And you just write it down and the audience goes with it.
I like a good play about death. Because it makes me think of things I don't want to think about.
KC: To investigate all the…
KM: And how to live your life in a meaningful way. That's what she's saying. It's so easy to miss…everything. I love that you're thinking about death, and that it makes you think about life. And makes you want to embrace it, study it, examine it, be aware of it. This is a play that should stir you up, deeply, essentially, about the choices you make.