Lea Thompson and Matt McGrath to Debut Caroline in Jersey

Another World Premiere for Williamstown Theatre Festival

By: - Aug 02, 2009

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Pre-show interviews are fun, and games. The players have been instructed not to reveal anything, to keep everything a surprise for the audience, while the news guy has orders not to come back empty handed. The stakes are even higher when the new play happens to have been written by a rapidly rising woman playwright, and her work is getting a full throttle production. Caroline in Jersey runs at the Williamstown Theatre Festival from August 5 to 16 on the Nikos Stage. The official world premiere is set for August 6, the first performance being a preview to work out any remaining kinks.

Over coffee with Lea Thompson and Matt McGrath we talked about the production. Matt sets up the story: "Caroline in Jersey is all about an actress who is leaving her husband of six years and she is in a state of crisis. She has to find an apartment, one in which it seems there is this peculiar presence."

Lea continues: "You can't tell if it's all in her mind, or if she's losing it. It could be a real thing, or an apparition.  The audience never really knows, it could just be the refrigerator acting up and it is all a mystery and yet, at the same time, very emotional. "

"There's running around and doors slamming, but more as drama than farce.  Even so, it has a lot of funny moments, " adds Matt.

They teased and tormented, but like politicians at a press briefing, never revealed much about the actual story.  Soon we were talking about their lives and careers.

Caroline  in Jersey is clearly very different from Lea's earlier television success, Caroline in the City. She won the 1996 People's Choice Award for that one. It was but one success along a complex career path.

Lea started out as a very promising ballet dancer, learning more than fifty roles, mostly as a teenager.  She went on to dance professionally with American Ballet Theatre and other companies. But that career did not last. Lea sighed and pointed out that  "Ballet is the hardest job, pays the least amount of money and has the shortest career. I still dream about dancing, it is such an incredible art.  In fact, my muscles still tense up if I hear music from familiar dances like Serenade or Concerto Barocco. "  To this day she has maintained a lithe and trim form that is a delight to behold, yet her rejection by Mikhail Baryshnikov has entered into theatrical legend. He found her too "big". Perhaps that is what she got for being the only ballet dancer who was not anorexic. So she  gave up ballet to become an actress. "Actually I gave up dancing to become a movie star. The acting came later," she joked.

"I've had a wonderful career, to be able to do so many different things, to do ballet, music theater, all those movies, this play and happily no hip replacements. My feet are pretty destroyed, though. (She didn't have laces on her sneakers) And I had to pay extra to get sneakers to look as bad as this," she laughed.

Matt McGrath has had a different career path. His resume is chockablock with traditional roles in films such as Pump Up The Volume and  Bob Roberts and tv shows like Frasier and Chicago Hope. Yet it is his ability to take on the most outré roles with enormous physical demands that make him a personal favorite. On stage he single-handedly rescued the offbeat transsexual off-Broadway musical (later a movie) Hedwig and the Angry Inch from closing.  He also played Lonny in the Oscar winning Boys Don't Cry, the story of the life of Brandon Teena, a transgendered teen who preferred life in a male identity until it was discovered he was born biologically female.

Ultimately, Matt met Lea for the first time in 2001 appearing in Cabaret together, he as the Master of Ceremonies and she as Sally Bowles. "It was my first musical," Lea adds.

Talking about the Berkshires, we compared notes on the Blue Benn Diner in Bennington, VT and how it has become almost a rite of passage for Williamstown actors to make the pilgrimage there to sample their California cuisine.  "They put avocados into the dish and call it California style," we joked. Lea admitted she hadn't made the trip yet, even though her husband Howard Deutch proposed to her 20 years ago at his home in Sheffield. But that is the other end of the county. Deutch is a movie director, and they have two girls, Zoey 15 and Madelyn 18. They will be flying east to see their mom later this week. Perhaps they would all head up to the Blue Benn.

"I have to have the full Berkshire experience - I am living like a nun. I go home, I study and learn my lines, it's very upsetting. And those words are not all crammed in there yet.  Even so, here in Williamstown, even if we are totally absorbed in rehearsals, there is a palpable feeling of shared history.  In the play we are all supposed to be best friends, and so in real life there's an easy kind of rhythm we fall into that is very relaxed," she observes. WTF actors Will LeBow and Brenda Wehle who are equally key players in the production make up the balance of the cast.

Soon our conversation had swung to the playwright and director.

Turns out the author is the fast rising Melinda Lopez whose play Sonia Flew was offered in 2004 when WTF Artistic Director Nicholas Martin was at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. Lopez is well known in the Boston area where a number of her works - like the well received Gary - have been performed.

The other half of the creative team is Amanda Charlton who is directing Caroline in Jersey. Her 2007 production of Dissonance at WTF is a personal favorite.  She also runs the WTF Apprentice Program. "Everyone agrees she's a great leader to have at Williamstown, and she has done so much with the apprentices.  We are lucky to have her directing Caroline," says McGrath.

Approaching the question of the plot again, we wondered about the rehearsals. Matt reported that Melinda Lopez, the playwright, has been in the studio, sitting right alongside Charlton, and both seem focused on getting the play exactly right. "Amanda is a real hands-on director, and she has a clear vision of what she wants to have happen," added Lea. "In this short rehearsal period - really brief compared with what we get in New York - it's really a necessity to hone right in."

Well, they still hadn't revealed much about the plot, I complained. "Well, I'll let you have a hint," Lea offered teasingly, "Most of the second act has me running around in a dog costume which is all I am going to say."

What kind of a dog, I press. "A very good one," Matt laughingly answers. I try to imagine Lea in a dog suit. I make whining dog sounds. I beg.

"OK, it's a little George Jetson, a little Laika."   Laika, it turns out,  was the first mammal to orbit the earth in Sputnik 2 though the canine died within hours after the launch.  The US used chimpanzees.

"I am dying to see the finished costume," admitted Lea.  "They are working on it now, just imagine my face instead of the dog's - it's a very sexy space suit, with a leather harness."  Matt perked up and was chortling madly, so it must be something to see. Of course all this lends itself to a play on words, for if Lea made her breakthrough with the Back to the Future movie franchise, then this tribute to the Sputnik mutt is very much a Forward into the Past kind of play.

"And just to clarify," Lea insisted, "What we are talking about is the play within the play." The answers continued to be more mystifying than revelatory. "That's the musical that my best friend (who is played by Matt in the show) wrote that I am doing while the play is taking place. Does that make sense?" Um, sorta.

Switching to the subject of Nicholas Martin, Matt noted that the WTF's artistic director shows no signs of letting up. "He's found a great playwright in Melinda Lopez, and put together a great production team. Despite the challenges of his health, (Martin had a stroke last fall) he has great energy. Just look at the incredible cast he has put together for The Torchbearers, that is quite an accomplishment." That show opened last week.

They talked about problems encountered in presenting a play for the first time.  Lea noted that at Williamstown at least, it has been "A calming experience. mostly because Amanda is so together, and Melinda is so serene and thoughtful. The pressure of course will mount up now as we enter the final days of rehearsal but it has actually been such a loving experience for me."

"No matter how difficult the work," Matt offered, "It doesn't faze us as long as it is being done in a rational and supportive environment. When the eleventh hour comes and our nerves are at their peak, the confidence will be there for everyone." Clearly doing the essential groundwork is what makes any production soar.

"You know," said Lea with a grin, at this point all I really care about is getting my dog outfit. They've sent to Russia for some of it, and I don't care what else happens, I can't wait to try it on."

"We joke and have a good time, but this is a really wonderful play," Matt adds, bringing us back to earth. "It is really challenging, out-there, funny...Melinda has a lot of interesting thoughts and brings up fascinating issues. She doesn't shy away from some really neat topics, like life and death,and creativity. She deals with them in an enlightening and realistic way." Like perhaps the challenges of being an aging actress? "She finds comedy in the tragedy of grief, finding ways for us to step back and make light of a painful experience. Rather than avoiding difficult areas she has built drama out of it, and the result is wildly funny."

"For me, in my own family, much of this seems real to me because it's the way we deal with grief and crisis" recalls Lea.  "We are always laughing as we are crying, my two children and my husband. Maybe that's why this feels so genuine to me, because it is exactly the way we deal with the big problems life dumps in our laps with both intelligence and humor. That is why I love this play, that kind of writing is hard to find."

Lea Thompson has a reputation as a very strict and protective mother. She won't let her children watch her film, Howard the Duck because of her bedroom sex scene with the fowl. "Scarring," she nods, and who could disagree, it could ruin her motherly image forever. "It's bad enough they are going to be here this week to see thier mother in a Laika the Dog outfit. As if the poor children didn't have enough to deal with. Not to mention the expense of therapy and all that guilt."

Lately Lea has been honing her directorial and film production skills, producing a family film called Mayor Cupcake. It is also a family project with both daughters acting in it. "Perhaps you could submit it to the Williamstown Film Festival," suggests Matt. "That would be awesome," she responded with a smile. Lea has directed three films recently, as she polishes yet another facet of a diverse career.

"I've been in so many films, and it just a natural outgrowth of that. What's great about it is the sense of love that I have for the actors when they are performing for the camera. It is such a different experience than the one you get when you are the other actor in the scene, because watching them work is just such a great feeling. Matt, you've directed, too." she adds. "For theatre, not film. I agree there is nothing like it,"says Matt. "You know," Lea adds, "Sometimes I get tears in my eyes watching them work."

Then in a flash, she was off to rehearsal. Matt and I talked a bit longer, and soon he too was back to the task at hand. They had done their job. the interview was over and they had not revealed too much.

Only I can't wait to see Lea in a dog suit.