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What a Marvel

Obie Award winner Elizabeth Marvel returns to the stage in Ethan Coen's Almost an Evening and Caryl Churchill's Top Girls. logo
Elizabeth Marvel
(© Doug Hamilton)
Elizabeth Marvel is one of those rare actresses who makes her home on the stage, which is one reason New York audiences have been missing her intelligent and fearless presence since her last, brief appearance in the Rattlestick Theatre production of Dark Matters in November, 2006. But the Obie Award-winning actress has had good reasons for taking a break -- most notably, the birth of her son Silas Camp in June 2006, and a slew of small television and film roles that have been easier to juggle with new motherhood and come with much better compensation than Off-Broadway. Fortunately for us, though, Marvel's theatrical hiatus is at an end. This month, she co-stars in the Atlantic Theatre Company's Almost an Evening, a trio of short plays by film director/screenplay writer Ethan Coen, and in April, she'll come to Broadway as Marlene in the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls.

As we speak during a break in rehearsal for Almost an Evening, which began a sold-out run on January 9, it's clear Marvel is relishing being back on familiar turf. "It's a lot of fun doing this piece," she says, not giving away any of the show's plots. "It's a great group of actors -- F. Murrray Abraham, Jonathan Cake, Mark Linn-Baker, and Mary McCann -- and we all have these little juicy things we get to do. But we're all craving to do more. And we're all cracking each other up in rehearsal. Still, you look around the room, and you realize that this is a really good string of folks on the bench, so you want to perform well even in the rehearsal room."

Marvel is also unusually thrilled to have the writer in the rehearsal room -- in part, because she recently had Coen and his brother Joel direct her in their upcoming film Burn After Reading, a spy thriller in which she plays George Clooney's wife. "It's been very different working with him than on the film, because he's not directing; Neil Pepe is. He's just there to talk to us if we want to adjust something or talk," she says.

"It was so interesting working with the Coens on the film. At first, I thought 'oh my god, there's going to be two of them.' But it was a job I just couldn't say no to -- even though it meant turning down doing The Misanthrope at New York Theatre Workshop with Ivo Van Hove, whom I hope to work with again next year, and my husband, Bill Camp," adds Marvel. "And the movie turned out to be heaven. There was never any contradiction or confusion. Even better, one could be over there focusing something and the other could be over here. Moreover, they treat you like a fellow collaborative artist. You get to do what you want to do, and they give some great direction but don't micromanage you. That's a rare and beautiful thing."

Just as she got those roles without auditioning, director James Macdonald called her directly to be part of the ensemble of Top Girls -- which also includes Marisa Tomei, Martha Plimpton, and Mary Catherine Garrison -- even though who's playing who in this all-female play is still up in the air. "There are no shrinking violets in this cast, which is something that really excites me," says Marvel. "I just love the idea of doing an all-female play on Broadway. I find it so subversive to our time, because we are in a very interesting time with women. This is probably a little controversial, but I think I am of the world of actors like Colleen Dewhurst and Geraldine Page, this genre of big strong women that are willing to be messy in all its glory, and there's not a lot of room for us today. It's a much thinner, fragile woman that we see a lot on stage now. I have to really hang in there and take a lot of blows in the ring and do a lot of fancy footwork to keep standing."

Elizabeth Marvel in Hedda Gabler
(© Joan Marcus)
Top Girls was a play Marvel was long familiar with, but hadn't been interested in doing. "I'm telling you it was the same with Hedda Gabler; I always hated that play. And the same with A Streetcar Named Desire. In that one, I always wanted to play Stella, never Blanche" she notes. "And I was never interested in this play -- that dining table, these historical women, what? How do you do that? But all these directors that I'm crazy about keep coming along and doing these plays. So I say sign me up, even if I don't get it and I don't know what I'm going to contribute. Then, they end up being incredible experiences for me. Fingers crossed, this will be another one." Indeed, she's particularly excited to work with Macdonald. "I think James is an awesome director, because he'll bring something out of me that I don't already know. I know all my tricks and I'm pretty bored with them, so if that's all someone wants I'd rather wait for TV money and not work so hard."

As Marvel points out, TV or film money is more of a necessity these days, since she and Camp are raising Silas themselves -- sans nanny -- and Camp is working non-stop Off-Broadway; he's currently in New York Theatre Workshop's Beckett Shorts and will follow that immediately with the Playwrights Horizons' production of Dead Man's Cell Phone. "I have to say to his credit, he gets up early and sacrifices his sleep to put in as much daddy time as possible," she notes. "And he's sworn that after Dead Man closes, he's going to take a break and be a stay-at-home daddy for a little while, but whether that plan gets stuck to is another question."

And how has being a mom affected Marvel as an actress? "I'm finding that I'm having a harder time with my lines, because I'm so much more scattered," she says. "I'm so used to being completely consumed by the play I'm doing and that's the beginning and the end of my world, and now that's about third or fourth on the list. Coming to work now is a vacation for me; that's when I get to rest, to sit, to stop and think about me a bit. But other than the memorization issues I feel like I've improved tenfold because I think whenever work becomes less precious and less obsessive, it grows. I think also I'm just a much bigger, deeper human being so I have a lot more to access to feeling as an actor. But I am tired -- much more tired."

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