EXCLUSIVE: Beth Behrs stands over her mother, asleep in a hospital room and dying of cancer. “I’ve been single for so long,” she says, “I’ve started having wet dreams about my vibrator.” The woman Behrs is playing, an unfiltered young standup comic named Karla, needs advice. “Now let me ask you,” Karla says, addressing the snoring body on the bed. “What do you think works better: wet dreams or sex dreams?” About 90 minutes later Karla gets an answer to that question, but not before she’s taken an unexpected journey through a world few people would naturally peg as a bubbling source of laughs: A semi-private room on a floor at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.
But black comedy is a specialty of playwright Halley Feiffer (it comes naturally to the daughter of astringent cartoonist Jules Feiffer) — just as envelope-pushing comedy is a specialty of the co-star of CBS’ long-running sitcom 2 Broke Girls. In a season that has seen Broadway wrestle with Shuffle Along, Or The Making of the 1921 Musical That Changed Broadway and All That Came After, Feiffer has given off-Broadway an even bigger mouthful of a title: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City. (A few days back, on Late Night, Seth Meyers made Behrs say the title just to prove she knew it.) The play, staged by Trip Cullman with a cast that includes Lisa Emery, Erik Lochtefeld and Jacqueline Sydney, began previews yesterday at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village and opens June 7.
“You think 2 Broke Girls is provocative, just wait. This makes 2 Broke Girls look like the Disney Channel.” — Beth Behrs
DEADLINE: On reading the script of Funny Thing, it looks like a play in which you get to say all the words that would be bleeped on your TV show.
BETH BEHRS: Yeah, you think 2 Broke Girls is provocative, just wait. This makes 2 Broke Girls look like the Disney Channel.
DEADLINE: You’ve got Trip Cullman directing, he’s just superb. You and Erik Lochtefeld play the — let’s call them maturity-challenged — children of the two women in this cancer ward, and who quite unexpectedly make a connection. That must have been especially challenging given the grim setting.
BEHRS: I’m learning so much from Trip — he’s the acting teacher that I always wanted but never had. He’s so articulate, his notes make so much sense, and he finds such comedy and such truth in things.
DEADLINE: Can you give me an example?
BEHRS: There’s this one moment where he told me not to look at Erik, and I was incredibly, as Karla, moved by that. It’s amazing how something physical can inform the emotional life and the truth so much. When I read the play I was cracking up, but then I also was crying for a good hour after I finished and I thought, anything that affects me that much in those different ways, I mean, catharsis doesn’t even begin to describe it. I was like, I have to have a shot at this. I actually flew myself out to audition on a Sunday while we were still shooting 2 Broke, because I just felt head over heels in love with it.
DEADLINE: Wait, you had to audition?
BEHRS: I did.
DEADLINE: Had you said, “Get me a play. I want to do a play.”
BEHRS: Yes. Theater is my heart. I consider it home, and it’s always been my dream to be here in New York doing it, so they knew. It was always about finding the right time you know. I did a movie — Hello My Name is Doris — on last hiatus, and it’s just finding the right thing to fit. I had actually auditioned for The King and I and then this came, so yeah.
DEADLINE: So you sing.
BEHRS: I do. I’m a classical soprano.
DEADLINE: I do think there are similarities in the character of Caroline in 2 Broke Girls, and Karla here. How’s it different playing these two women?
BEHRS: They’re immensely different. Karla, in the play, is probably the character that’s farthest from who I am as a person that I’ve ever played, which has been exciting and fascinating and emotional and so fun to have. We’ve had, I think five weeks of rehearsal, so to have the luxury of time to delve into a role like this has been amazing. Caroline is much different from Karla you know, she’s just a ray of positivity and Karla could not be farther from that. Her loneliness and brokenness is much different from Caroline Channing.
Also, I get to wear sneakers. Which is a big plus in this play for me, because even in pajamas on 2 Broke Girls I’m wearing 7-inch heels and flipping into a Dumpster. The good news is that on 2 Broke we shoot in front of a live audience, so for the past almost six years now I haven’t been deprived of that love of live-audience performing. But I’m really excited to do it you know, eight times a week.
DEADLINE: That’s work.
BEHRS: It’s hard. Theater for an actor is like going to the gym. You’re building that muscle and you’re getting stronger, and I feel like every play you do you become a better actor because you can’t fake it. You have no editor, no music supervisor informing how anyone’s supposed to feel. You have to listen and you have to be physically ready and emotionally ready.
DEADLINE: You’re about to start the sixth season of 2 Broke Girls. Has your audience changed?
BEHRS: It has changed actually. It’s gotten much younger, and I think part of that might be syndication. After school you know, on TBS or on the weekends they’re finding, especially here in New York. Women and boys and young men. I was walking my dog in Brooklyn, and these kids who couldn’t have been more than middle school were like, “That girl!” Actually they said, “That bitch,” but they were like, “That bitch walking her dog looks like the girl from 2 Broke Girls.” But people still say the same things — that it’s nice to see real people with real struggles, not living rich in New York like Friends — they all had that beautiful apartment and they were safe and healthy and strong and went out to dinner.
There are so many young females, especially entrepreneurs, nowadays, making these like, multimillion dollar companies. It’s nice to watch girls struggle and then succeed, and then not, and then have to go back. I think that’s true to life you know.
DEADLINE: Did you ever imagine that it would go on so long?
BEHRS: No! It’s gone by so fast. It feels like we just started, but you know, [co-star] Kat Dennings — I don’t think there’s anybody in my life, even my boyfriend of six years, that I’m as close to as her. It’s beyond sisters. Beyond co-workers. Beyond best friends. I don’t know if I’ll ever have that chemistry with again. From the moment we met it was like, Why haven’t we been friends since we were babies?
DEADLINE: What was the biggest challenge for the two of you?
BEHRS: A lot of times on TV the characters evolve as you evolve. We, and the girls themselves, have grown from almost-girls to women. I know it’s still called 2 Broke Girls, but we just did an arc where the girls get to go to L.A., and they have a semblance of success and respect, Hollywood wants to buy Caroline’s story. Caroline’s now developed so much more street smarts and worldly smarts than what she came from. That’s been really fun to play over the five years, as my world view changed and I’ve gotten to travel. I had never left the country before 2 Broke Girls, never had the opportunities that I’ve had. Who would have thought? Six years. It’s a dream for me. That’s all I need.
DEADLINE: Is there a classic role you’d like to play?
BEHRS: I’ve always wanted to play Nora in A Doll’s House. I’ve been an Ibsen fan since UCLA, when I got kind of obsessed with him. I don’t know why I’m so fascinated with that culture, that sort of Nordic area. I’ve never been to that part of the world, yet Nora and Torvald’s relationship is something that I’ve always found like, secretly sexy. I can’t believe I’m saying that.