For most actors, a 102-line monologue is a challenge. For Laurie Metcalf, who pronounces just such a pamphlet of words near the beginning of A Doll’s House, Part 2, it’s a piece of cake. Barely a burp. Laurie Metcalf has more memory than your laptop, your iPhone and all your crinkled analog photo albums combined. In Lucas Hnath’s Tony-nominated comedy, she plays Nora Helmer 15 years after the most famous departure in modern theater. At the end of Waiting for Godot, Vladimir says to Estragon, Yes, let’s go – and, famously, they do not move. In Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Nora has assessed her life as doting mother and sacrificing wife, and by god, she does move: The last cue of Ibsen’s play is the sound of the door shutting behind her.
Somewhat cheekily, Hnath picks up Nora 15 years later, during which time she has made good money as the author of proto-feminist tracts and novels, only to discover that her husband never properly divorced her, possibly leaving her open to a lawsuit. She returns to that home to find her daughter a grown young woman on the threshold of a conventional marriage, the nanny who cared for the children skeptical of her intentions, and her husband something of a drippy mess. In 90 minutes, Nora has to lay out all her cards before this pyramid of resentment. It’s hilarious.
And here’s the thing about Metcalf: In a career launched as an Upper Broadway whore in Lanford Wilson’s Balm In Gilead, through consecutive Emmy Awards three seasons running (1992-3-4) as Roseanne Barr’s caustic sister, right up to last season, when she managed to be Emmy nominated in not one, not two, but three categories, one can only hope that, like a freelance writer, she was getting paid by the word. Because Metcalf has owned some of the longest monologues this side of Hamlet and Richard III.
In Balm In Gilead, she won acclaim for a 20-minute tour of a not entirely focused mind suffused with Wilson’s streetwise poetry. That was 1984; in The New York Times, Frank Rich wrote: “Ms. Metcalf’s delivery of the speech, in which Darlene’s good-natured gregariousness fights a losing battle against her unarticulated desperation, is a tour-de-force.”
In last season’s Horace and Pete, she spoke to Louis C.K.’s Horace, her ex-husband, for 40 almost non-stop minutes when neither the camera nor the viewer can turn away. Many of us thought it was the performance of the season, and with all due respect to Margo Martindale, who edged her out for best guest performance in a drama, Metcalf was robbed, I tell you, robbed.
We met a few days ago to catch up.
Deadline: I was interviewing Dear Evan Hansen‘s director Michael Greif recently and when I asked him about his training he said it began when, as a college student, he saw Balm in Gilead twice a week during its run at Steppenwolf in Chicago, just to watch Darlene speak that monologue.
Laurie Metcalf: To this day, I will bet you like every four months, I run into somebody who saw that play either in Chicago or out here. It was such a rush of a time to be in New York and doing a play that everyone was going to see. People remember that show because it was so theatrical. With the Tom Waits’ music, Rickie Lee Jones and Springsteen all cranked up – and they all came to see it, which amazed us.
‘In Doll’s House, Part 2, there’s a passion that Nora has that carries her through. Her thoughts can barely keep up with her own words because she’s so passionate about what she’s speaking about.’
Deadline: It made me realize that you must own some of the longest monologues in history.
Metcalf: Well at least in this show they’re not all stacked together as they might be, but I do run off at the mouth quite a bit. And Long Day’s Journey Into Night, I played Mary Tyrone in London – she doesn’t even know if she’s speaking out loud some of the time.
Deadline: Is there some trick? Because not everyone can do it as effortlessly as you do.
Metcalf: Only hours and hours and hours of slogging. You just bite it off in pieces and keep adding on to it. It doesn’t get easier. For Horace and Pete, I had over a month to learn it, and it took me that long. In Doll’s House, Part 2, there’s a passion that Nora has that carries her through. Her thoughts can barely keep up with her own words because she’s so passionate about what she’s speaking about.
Deadline: There’s also a musicality to it.
Metcalf: That’s right, I like to attack it on both ends. There’s the instinctual part of what this person is going through and it might bring up an emotion here or there, pop up out of the blue. But I also love the technical side of it, when to speed it up, when to slow it down and earn a pause and get lost or sidetracked or purposely forget a word. And I speak the whole play out loud every day before every show, even on a two-show day. Part of that might be just superstition at this point. I go down on the set and run the whole thing by myself.
Deadline: With blocking?
Metcalf: Yuh. This play goes a mile a minute and you don’t want to bobble a word, it just doesn’t sound right with this type of writing.
Deadline: Let’s come back to that. But first, you’ve just done the upfront presentation with Roseanne Barr for ABC.
Metcalf: That’s going to be a rush, to jump back into that world. Back on the same lot, I think maybe in the same studio that we were in more than 20 years ago. I guess it was just meant to be. Maybe the timing of it is really good. I’d like to see this blue-collar family today, in 2017.
Deadline: So, no hesitation about doing it?
Metcalf: Oh no, not at all. Will & Grace is doing theirs and the fact that ABC bought a little boutique order of eight episodes is really cool. It will be interesting to see where they pick up. I have no idea.
Deadline: How did A Doll’s House, Part 2 come to you?
Metcalf: I got an email from [producer] Scott Rudin saying, “Would you like to do a show on Broadway?” And I started salivating. He attached it to the email. Lucas’s writing looks like an e.e. cummings poem. I laughed out loud when I saw the audacity of the title. Even before I began reading, I knew it had some guts to it, or humor at least. And then I was really mesmerized by his suggestion that it be done in period costumes but with this contemporary language and contemporary body language. I thought, What an interesting visual that will be. It might even keep snapping the audience back and forth into what year are we in? It looks like 1879 but it sure sounds contemporary.
Deadline: The show is staged by Sam Gold, and your co-stars are Chris Cooper, Jayne Houdyshell and Condola Rashad. All of you are nominated for Tony Awards. How did you work on it?
Metcalf: They knew the script wasn’t ready when we all signed on, but Scott provided us with two workshops at La Mama months before we went into rehearsal. It was all of us sitting around a table with a dramaturg, just reading it so Lucas could hear it. He likes to let a group of actors bounce ideas back to him, and then he would come in with what he calls scraps the next day, one or two pages. We would read them and either they would make it into the show or not. Lucas wanted to make sure all four of the voices were balanced. He didn’t want it to be lopsided in any way. I knew it was going to be funny but I loved digging around in it to find as much humor as possible.
Deadline: I wonder how you, as a mom yourself, processed the interaction with Nora’s daughter, Emmy, who quite calmly, almost without affect, makes it clear she hates you for abandoning her.
Metcalf: That scene is really unexpected. You expected the standoff between husband and wife. Lucas took two characters from A Doll’s House who really had no voice at all – Anne Marie, the nanny, and Emmy, the three-year-old daughter – and gave them powerful voices. You don’t expect a scene between the estranged mother and daughter, dealing with abandonment, repercussions of that, I don’t think people see that coming.
It could be a supercharged emotional scene; we decided to play against that. There were times during rehearsals when I’d be a mess, seeing her, and Sam said, “It doesn’t work. It’s not letting the audience discover what their relationship is.” It was tipping it in a way that the audience doesn’t need at that point.
Deadline: It’s a little scary to contemplate what might happen to the script once it gets in less sure hands.
Metcalf: I know. I’ve gotten very attached to it. And it will be done everywhere! I mean, it’s four people and a door. And a Kleenex box.
The Tony Awards will be telecast live by CBS June 11, beginning at 8 PM New York time.