Stockard Channing is one of five theatrical all-stars assembled by director Joe Mantello for Lincoln Center Theater’s off-Broadway world premiere of Other Desert Cities. Certainly the Tony-winning actress feels at home in the itsy-bitsy Mitzi Newhouse Theater: This is her fourth show there, after acclaimed performances in John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation and Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood. This time, she’s playing an acerbic Palm Springs matron married to a Reagan-era ambassador (Stacy Keach), saddled with an alcoholic sister (Linda Lavin) and two troublesome adult children (Elizabeth Marvel and Thomas Sadoski), one of whom has written a blockbuster memoir revealing ugly family secrets. As usual, Channing is pitch-perfect delivering Jon Robin Baitz’s zingers while sashaying around her chic living room in stylish tunics and heels. Just after opening night, Broadway.com chatted with the star about her hot new show and why she calls herself “the worst celebrity ever.”
Congratulations on the critical response to Other Desert Cities! Do you read reviews?
No, I don’t.
Well, if you did, you would be very pleased.
Good! It’s really exhilarating to be in something where the audience is so happy to be there and so intrigued by what we’re doing. Some of it is tough stuff—we’re not doing a frothy little comedy. What’s curious is that people will be gasping one second, and a minute later there will be a roar of laughter. It’s a very interesting piece in that way. I think we move people and also make them laugh, and hopefully provoke them in the sense that they will discuss what they’ve seen. This is a piece that audiences seem to be satisfied by.
How would you describe Polly Wyeth, the matriarch you’re playing?
She’s a lioness—she loves her children and her family and will do anything to protect them. Some people will respond to her strength as being abrasive; I can feel that some in the audience don’t like her politics, which I find irrelevant, to be honest. She’s going to be slightly misunderstood by some people. What would you say?
Oh, I loved her. Every time you opened your mouth, I thought, “She’s right.”
The thing is, Robbie [Baitz] has written five great characters and made a very even playing field. You may say, “That point of view is right,” and then the next person speaks and you think, “Oh, maybe that point of view is right.” It’s like Rashomon in terms of memory, in terms of ethics, in terms of everything. We all have different opinions, but the bottom line is that there is a tremendous connection of love and affection in this family. Otherwise, they’d just be a bunch of nasty people.
With five theater stars sharing the stage, how did director Joe Mantello create an ensemble?
He got the right five people to do it. We’re all very serious about what we do, but we don’t overanalyze it. No one was pulling at the fabric of the play—we didn’t sit and do a lot of yakking about it, we just got on with it. Robbie was there at rehearsals, but mainly what was emphasized is that [the characters are] all right and they’re all wrong. I know that sounds vague, but there’s a lot I can’t talk about, because there’s a big old secret at the center of this play.
You and Stacy Keach have a fantastic rapport.
I was so happy to hear he was going to be doing it because I had an instinct it was going to be a great match. I love the fact that we have all this chemistry and yet we never talk to each other. We never have a conversation on that stage.
Is that true?
Yeah! Isn’t that amazing? He asks me for a couple of things and tells me to do something, but we have no scene together the entire evening. The characters look at each other and have body language, but they never have an exchange [laughs].
This play seems like an obvious bet for a Broadway transfer.
We’re hoping we can continue in some form or other, but it remains to be seen how that’s going to be achieved. There seems to be no [Broadway] theaters to be had at this moment. But we’d all like to do it. [Note: Channing’s comments came less than 24 hours before Lincoln Center Theater announced its intention to move the play in fall 2011.]
You’ve done a lot of revivals in recent years. Is there a difference in launching a new play?
It’s kind of a relief, because you get frustrated being compared to a movie that had nothing to do with the original play! It feels great to help create something from the beginning and think, “OK, people [in the future] will be comparing them to us.” It’s nice to be the first path through the snow.
You’ve always been diplomatic about the 2008 Broadway revival of Pal Joey [in which leading man Christian Hoff departed during previews]. How do you feel about that experience now?
I absolutely adored it. It was one of the great experiences of my life. Just loved the whole thing.
And now Matthew Risch, who stepped in as your Joey, is understudying at Other Desert Cities.
He did it as a favor. Joe [Mantello] couldn’t find anyone else, and Matt said he’d do it. He’s a terrific actor and it’s great to have him around. We’re close friends.
This is your second show with Joe Mantello. What sets him apart as a director?
He’s a perfectionist, with his own vision; there’s a precision about what he wants. But I think the fact that he has been an excellent actor himself gives him a sense of sympathy and empathy for the actor’s position.
In recent years, you’ve starred in a London production of Awake and Sing and a Dublin production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Would you like to have done those plays in New York?
I’m just delighted that someone asked me to do them! I think it’s great to work all over the world. I did Six Degrees of Separation in London; John [Guare] won the Olivier Award and I got a nomination, and I can’t tell you how incredibly honored I was by that. That was 18 or 20 years ago, and in those days, it seemed like the movement was in one direction—everybody was coming to America—so it’s nice when we can do it the other way around. That kind of internationalism should be encouraged.
You are one of America’s finest theater actors. Does it bother you that most of the public isn’t even aware of your stage performances?
That’s the nature of theater. It doesn’t have that much publicity surrounding it. People, I’m sure, think of me as the First Lady of the United States [from The West Wing] or the world’s oldest living teenager [from Grease]. That’s just the way it goes.
What do you love about stage acting?
It’s the foundation for everything I do—and when it’s great, there’s nothing like it. I call us the Other Desert Cities quintet, because it’s like we’re making music together. It’s not going into a booth and recording a phrase 50 times so somebody can cut it up and match it to something else. When you have that connection with a live audience and all the pieces come together, it’s just incredibly satisfying.
Would you be interested in doing another TV series?
I don’t know how you could top West Wing. I’m kind of spoiled, but the great thing about life is that you never know what’s around the corner. For me, [an acting job is] all about where, when and with whom. I’m open to all options.
I get the feeling you’re pretty satisfied with the level of fame you have achieved.
This is true. I’m rather uncomfortable with celebrity, to be honest. In the world we live in now, that’s a real conversation stopper, but celebrity…I’m probably just lazy, but I find it too much work, and not the work I really want to do.
What’s your life like away from the theater?
I lead a very boring, normal life. I have my partner of 25 years [cinematographer Dan Gillham], and there’s dogs and there’s traveling. I hate parties. I really don’t like public events. I hate dressing up. I am the worst celebrity ever! [Laughs.] If I never have to walk another red carpet, it will be fine with me.
Are you based in New York now?
No, Maine and Florida and California and sometimes New York. And then I go work in England or Ireland for three months. All over the place! I move around, but when I’m with the people I love, I’m happy.
See Stockard Channing in Other Desert Cities at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater.