New York came late to Laurie Metcalf. By the time she appeared off-Broadway in a revival of Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead, in 1984, she had already made a splash in her home state of Illinois, where she attended college (Illinois State) and became a charter member of Steppenwolf (Chicago). Her 22-minute monologue in the Wilson play didn't make you sit up to take notice: you STOOD to take notice, a sensation I have had on only one other occasion since, when Viola Davis, in the 2001 Broadway production of August Wilson's King Hedley II, gave a speech defending her right to abort a pregnancy.
For her career-making stage moment, in Balm, Metcalf played a prostitute called Darlene. New York Times critic Frank Rich called her delivery of the speech "a tour de force." He added: "She reminisces to another whore...about her married past in Chicago - all the while wrapping tragic events within the most inane and trivial digressions."
Few performers manage to maneuver between the tragic and the inane as expertly as Metcalf. If you examine her filmography, you will see stories both down-and-out ("Leaving Las Vegas") and downright silly ("Beer League"). How many former cast members of "Saturday Night Live" (Metcalf was part of the 1981 season) have gone on to triumph in a role of such Olympian dimensions as Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night? Metcalf did it onstage in London, in 2012.
It is a measure of Metcalf's skill that you can imagine her, with only a slight adjustment in voice and timing, taking Mary Tyrone from the depths of tragedy to the delirium of comedy. The actress, whose appetite for work of all kinds is formidable (she has said in interviews that she's never read a script she can't imagine, at some level, wanting to play), doesn't break down opportunities into high and low, princessy and pauperish.
Like virtually all of my favorite performers past and present, Metcalf can switch between such contrasting tones in a flash. Jeff Goldblum, her primary costar in Domesticated, says, "She can prepare on a dime." Mia Barron, another of her colleagues in the production, told me that Metcalf can be joshing around in the wings only seconds before she makes an entrance for a serious scene. Her transitions are instantaneous, which helps explain why she is such good casting for Judy in Bruce Norris's play: as the production's director, Anna D. Shapiro, has said, Domesticated is all about transitions - there are 32 scenes, and the trick is getting from one thing to the next in a flash.
In her career, Metcalf has made another kind of transition: back and forth between stage and screen. Sometimes, they mirror each other. Her appearance as a woman married to a physician in Domesticated coincides with her performing AS a physician in the brash comedy "Getting On," currently in a six-episode trajectory on HBO. Metcalf, of course, is best-known for her role as Jackie on the Number One sitcom "Roseanne," which she did from 1988 to 1997 and which won her three consecutive Emmys, and more recently she has delighted us on another Number One laugh-maker, "The Big Bang Theory," on which she has appeared as Mary Cooper.
As whole university courses have been compiled on both of those shows, I have nothing further to explicate. I will say only that, while watching Metcalf in Domesticated the other night, I was struck by the realization of how many of TV's most delightful young comediennes have been influenced by her. If you didn't know that Metcalf came first, you would swear that her deadpan comic delivery in Domesticated - the way she draws her voice from loud to soft, the genius with which she can flatten a brief response that, on the page, seems to cry out for bravura - originated with Kristen Wiig. Nope.
This isn't a matter of Wiig stealing from Metcalf, because all standout performers are influenced, and sometimes even directly model themselves, on the idols of their youth. I have never asked Metcalf whom she counts as inspirations. I suspect that as part of her response she would say that she's jazzed by whatever group of actors she's working with at a given moment. Which means that, at Lincoln Center Theater right now, she's in very good company.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com