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The New York Times
February 20, 1991

Two Newcomers Make Waves in Ayckbourn Play
By Alex Witchel

It couldn't have happened any better for Gillian Anderson if Schwab's Drug Store were still in business. A 1990 graduate of the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, the young actress moved to New York six months ago, found an apartment in Greenwich Village and, when she wasn't auditioning, worked as a waitress at Dojo, a Japanese health food restaurant on St. Mark's Place. She made barely enough money to cover her rent, and the only theater she saw was a performance of "Lettice and Lovage" with Maggie Smith, where she says she practically got a nosebleed in the back of the balcony.

When Mary Louise Parker dropped out of "Absent Friends" because of illness, Ms. Anderson's agent sent her to audition for the part of Evelyn, a sullen young mother in Alan Ayckbourn's black comedy about a group of friends who console an acquaintance on the death of his fiancee. (The play runs through March 17 at the Manhattan Theater Club.) Ms. Anderson's first reading warranted a callback "to make sure it wasn't a fluke," said the director, Lynne Meadow, and when the second reading went well, the actress was hired on the spot. It was her first job in the theater, and the rest of the cast had started rehearsals a week earlier.  

A Veteran Colleague

Now, in this dreariest of theater seasons, Ms. Anderson is one of two actresses, both in the same play and both new to New York, whose performances are causing some excitement. And if Ms. Anderson is the Pauper of professional experience, Brenda Blethyn is the Princess. A 16-year veteran of London's National Theater, she has won a SWET Award -- the British equivalent of a Tony -- for best supporting actress in "Steaming," and nominations for best actress in both "Benefactors" and "The Beaux' Stratagem." She has paid dues on top of dues, touring England in everything from "A Doll's House" to "Troilus and Cressida," playing catch-up for the 10 years she spent working as a secretary before getting up the nerve to audition for drama school. It was Mr. Ayckbourn himself who recommended Ms. Blethyn for "Absent Friends." Ms. Meadow had never heard of her.

Ms. Blethyn plays Diane, a warm-hearted housewife who gave up her own goals for a husband who cheats on her. Speaking of her casting choice in a telephone interview last week, Ms. Meadow said, "It's hard to be articulate about what I needed for the role." The director has long been a champion of Mr. Ayckbourn's plays and has arranged for Manhattan Theater Club to produce one each season for the next five years. "I was looking for someone who could handle Ayckbourn's very light comedy as well as his depths. I spoke with Michael Blakemore, who had directed Brenda in 'Benefactors,' and he said she would be fabulous. So I called her and we started to talk about the character.

"Brenda said, 'Poor Diane, you don't know whether to laugh or cry,' " Ms. Meadow recalled. "I said 'Both' and she said 'Yes.' That was it. It was a crazy instinct, like it was meant to be."

Ms. Blethyn was telling the story one morning last week as she and Ms. Anderson had coffee in the dressing room they share. "Lynne called me her 'mail-order bride,' " Ms. Blethyn said. "It was wonderful of her to take the chance, sight unseen. Even though Alan recommended me, there was no guarantee it would work. Then it looked like I wouldn't be able to come at all because my mother, who is 86, was very sick. But her doctors told me to get on with my life, that she would be fine in a nursing home." She laughs. "She'll be bragging now to the old people about my being here. She's thrilled to bits."

So is Ms. Blethyn. "It's like a dream, really, to come here and be appreciated. Quite wonderful, isn't it, Gillian?" she asked blithely.  

The British Rubs Off

Ms. Anderson, who was giving her first interview, was pale and looked a bit queasy. When she spoke it was with a vaguely British accent, which comes partly from having lived in London until she was 10 -- her father attended the London Film School, then stayed on -- and partly, she said, from being around Ms. Blethyn. She spoke about herself haltingly, with much of the deadpan quality that her character has in the play.

"When Lynne had my resume in her hand and said, 'Is this all you've done?' I didn't know what she meant," Ms. Anderson said. "I thought I had done a lot. But once I was hired, a big fear of mine was letting Lynne down. She was taking a big risk, and I didn't want her to find out she'd made a mistake."

Ms. Meadow said: "I didn't realize we would find someone quite this green. But it is one of those great stories, where someone is cast purely on ability. Gillian's background is improvisational and she took those instincts and put them into the highly technical style Alan Ayckbourn writes in, which is not free-flowing at all. It has to be played the way it's written, so our work was extremely specific, concrete."

Her approach with Ms. Blethyn was different. "Her instrument is so finely tuned, she's open to try anything," Ms. Meadow said. "Because she's done Ayckbourn before she understands that the life and humor of the piece is based on reaction. Ayckbourn writes people, not gags. If you create the people the way he painted them, if you paint authentically, they are completely universal kinds of people and the humor becomes more than British humor. But you have to trust him. If you try to comment on what he's already done it doesn't work."  

An American Who Understands

Ms. Blethyn added: "It's hard enough to do Ayckbourn in England. It's easy to go only for the comedy, which is the biggest mistake with him. Lynne is doing a wonderful job as an American doing a British play."

The youngest of nine children, Ms. Blethyn was raised in Ramsgate in Kent, southeast of London. Her father was a mechanical engineer, her mother worked "doing kitchen stuff."

"We were not well off at all," she says. "Being an actress in America was my dream from childhood. But I became a secretary because I thought, 'No one is interested in me; don't be silly.' Then I was into my 20's and I thought 'If I don't try now, I'll spend the rest of my life regretting it.' So I auditioned for drama school at Guilford and, touch wood" -- she turned to find some -- "I've never been out of work since."

She started in 1974 with the Bubble Theater, a summer touring company. Then she did "a lunchtime show at the Open Space Theater in London, which was really a shop window."

After one performance, Annie Robinson, the casting director from the National Theatre, came backstage and introduced herself. "I promptly spilled a cup of coffee on her," Ms. Blethyn recalled, "and she said: 'Quite all right. Would you like to work at the National?' When I told my mom, she said, 'If you do your acting all day long, when do you earn your money?' "  

'A Great Deal of Faith'

It's a funny story, but staying employed is every actor's concern. Ms. Anderson says: "There is a slight fear this will be my first and last job for a while, but that's in every actor's mind as long as they live. I tend to have a great deal of faith that wherever my life goes, it's the best thing for me."

Ms. Blethyn's attitude is less mellow, probably because she has been around longer. "My constant fear is whether another job will come along. But I also wonder if I will be as good as I was in the last job and not cheat the audience. That I won't turn out the same old thing, which is ultimately not satisfying to me or the audience. And also to retain the respect people have in me. If I'd come here and not done well I'd be mortified to have let the Manhattan Theater Club down. That would be even greater than my own disappointment" -- she starts to laugh -- "but that just might be my working-class background coming out."

Ms. Anderson is quick to compliment her. "It's so wonderful to watch you and Lynne work together," she said to Ms. Blethyn. "The silent understandings they have about the character, and the way they can verbalize what's missing, what they need. The thought-instinct process is so precise." She sighs. "That's one thing that only experience gives you. For me it takes quite a lot longer to come up with what's happening."

"As long as you come up with it, dear," Ms. Blethyn said without missing a beat. And they both laughed.

Transcript provided by Catherine Blatz and appears courtesy of The NY Times.

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