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Very Mary-Louise

Actress Mary-Louise Parker offers further Proof of her talent in David Auburn's surprising new play at Manhattan Theatre Club. logo
Parker in Proof
New Yorkers are awfully fortunate that Mary-Louise Parker considers the theater her artistic home. Right now, she is giving an utterly winning performance in Proof, David Auburn's satisfying and surprising new drama about a young woman struggling to get her bearings after years of caring for her mentally ill father, a once-famous math professor.

As in her breakthrough performance a decade ago in Prelude to a Kiss, Parker creates a heroine who doesn't pretend to be perfect, doesn't have the rest of her life figured out, and doesn't seem to realize how beautiful she is. And, as in her heartbreaking performance three years ago in How I Learned to Drive, she never pushes herself on the audience--yet it's difficult to look anywhere else when she is on stage.

"I read new plays all the time, always hoping to find something that I want to do, and I got really excited about this one," says Parker, who was urged to explore the role by Manhattan Theatre Club artistic director Lynne Meadow. "I tend to play people who are uninhibited emotionally, and I was amazed by how unapologetic this character is. I liked the fact that she is deeply unhappy and yet somehow hopeful; she has an amazing sense of irony about her situation." The deal was sealed when Daniel Sullivan (A Moon for the Misbegotten, Dinner With Friends), a director Parker had always wanted to work with, signed on. In turn, Sullivan followed his leading lady's suggestions in casting the play's take-charge older sister and father: Johanna Day, who played several supporting characters in How I Learned to Drive, and Larry Bryggman, who played Parker's dad in Prelude to a Kiss.

"It never stops amazing me that 10 years have gone by since I worked with Larry," she says. "In this play, I'm playing the age that I actually was when we worked together last time." Though Parker has no trouble believably portraying a 25-year-old college dropout who is romanced by her father's former student (Ben Shenkman), she quips: "Up close, I'm starting to fall apart."

Like Cherry Jones and Audra McDonald, Parker speaks of her talent with reticence and modesty; she's most at ease talking about anything other than herself. Always up to date on the New York theater scene, she praises Jennifer Ehle's performance in the current Broadway production of The Real Thing and declares that Eileen Heckart's work in The Waverly Gallery "was one of the greatest performances I have ever seen. I was weeping five minutes into the show, and it wasn't even sad yet."

Asked to explain her devotion to the theater, Parker pauses for several seconds before saying, "I think you either love it and you get it, or you don't. When it works, there's just nothing better. It's like life--it's happening then, you're experiencing it then, and it's never going to be the same again. If you see videos of theater [performances], they're completely static; it doesn't look like anything, because you can't capture theater on film. Once it's gone, it's gone. That's what makes it magic."

Personally speaking, she adds, "I just read something that [Lincoln Center Theater artistic director] Andre Bishop said about Dan Sullivan, which was, 'He knows exactly who he is in a theater. Outside, he's not quite as sure.' I kind of feel that way, too. [In the theater], I have confidence; I feel really passionate and I feel like I have worth. I certainly don't feel that way on a movie set. I just love theater, and I can't imagine not doing it. Sometimes it rips me up and spits me out, but I don't even mind that part of it."
Parker acknowledges that her stage habit has sometimes played havoc with her movie career, which got a strong start in 1991 with Fried Green Tomatoes. "Certainly, there have been times when it would have behooved me in terms of my commercial career to do this or that movie instead of a play, but I've never been very career-driven," she says. "Unfortunately, it's starting to show in my movie career!" she adds with a laugh. Parker has starred in several Hallmark Hall of Fame TV films in the past few years, including Anne Tyler's Saint Maybe and the recent Cupid and Cate, a gentle drama with a cast to make theater fans drool: Philip Bosco as the hard-hearted father of four sisters played by Parker, her real-life pal Joanna Going, Bebe Neuwirth, and Rebecca Luker. In the course of the movie, Parker as Cate dumps David Lansbury (of Pride's Crossing) to marry Peter Gallagher (who ends up with leukemia, but that's another story). "The director was not from the theater, but he was attracted to these actors. He had pretty good taste," she says mildly.

In feature films, Parker would do a terrific job with the kinds of roles being played by the likes of Jenna Elfman and Minnie Driver. "It's hard to get some of those parts once you're a little past 30 and you're not the new girl anymore," she says. "And it's kind of hard for me to do something just because it would be good for my career." She's hoping for a summer release of The Five Senses, a small-scale drama that earned Parker a best actress nomination in Canada, where it was filmed. "There are five stories that intermingle, each of which revolves around one of the senses," she says. "It's one of the first movies I've done in a while that I'm kind of proud of."

Appropriately enough, Parker's boyfriend of four years is a talented actor who shuns the limelight as much as she does: Billy Crudup, her co-star in Circle in the Square's 1996 production of Bus Stop. Somehow, it's hard to picture this photogenic couple working the crowd at an awards show and chatting about their wardrobe with Joan and Melissa Rivers. "I sometimes think people think it's pretentious not to want that," Parker says with a sigh, "but it's just not who I am. I'm happy to ride around in a limousine in a nice dress and drink champagne, but I don't necessarily want to be going to a place where there are a bunch of actors, you know what I mean? I have never liked to draw attention to myself."

On stage, it's a different story, and Parker admits I'm not the first person to suggest that she and Crudup ought to play Maggie and Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. "Mark Brokaw is really interested in that," she says of her How I Learned to Drive director. "I've been looking at it." She mentions that Nicole Kidman (with whom she appeared in Jane Campion's film version of The Portrait of a Lady) and Tom Cruise (?!) are supposedly planning to do Cat in London--which, even if true, certainly shouldn't dissuade Parker and Crudup.

"Sometimes [Billy] is attracted to a play and I'm not, or vice versa, so we have to find something that has two parts we both really need to play," she explains. "Maybe we should think about [Cat]. I really, really want to be on Broadway again," she adds, revealing that she'll follow up Proof with David Leveaux's production of Desire Under the Elms for the Roundabout Theatre Company. "I've never done O'Neill before, and I don't have any clue how to play that part," she says. (Presumably, Crudup isn't pining to play the doomed lover Eben opposite her tragic Abbie.)

Parker clams up only when the conversation takes a personal turn. Asked if she and Crudup might be planning a wedding, she replies, "No, there are no big life plans at all. I'm just staying here and keeping up with theater. I'm pretty boring."

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