Elizabeth Marvel had not even finished climbing the stairs to her dressing room backstage at the Booth Theater before I'd asked her if she'd ever played the place before and she had responded, "Yes - and I was pregnant."
Details forthcame when we reached her third-floor warren. She said: "It was 'Seascape.'" An Edward Albee play. Also a Lincoln Center Theater production. I was cast before I learned I was pregnant." This was late 2005, and one of Marvel's costars, Frances Sternhagen, who has six children, helped her through the pregnant-while-performing experience. What Marvel seems most to remember about that time, however, is that "My son was on this stage with me eight times a week for three months." (That son, whose father is Marvel's husband, the actor Bill Camp, currently on Broadway in "Death of a Salesman," is named Silas.)
Marvel's current assignment represents not only a return to the Booth but a return to the role of Brooke in "Other Desert Cities." I asked Marvel what she'd been doing since leaving the play last March, after it had been at LCT's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.
"Immediately after we closed uptown, I went into a room with Peter Sellars and Toni Morrison. We worked for three weeks on a text that became 'The Desdemona Project.'" As the piece's primary performer - there were also singers and musicians - Marvel had to master around 150 pages of text, which was certainly a challenge but one that she, who remarks that she still remembers long swatches of Shakespeare plays she's done in her career, welcomed. Marvel performed the work for a month in Vienna and for three weeks in Brussels.
"After 'Desdemona,'" Marvel said, "I went to London to film 'Hyde Park on Hudson.'" In this movie, directed by Roger Michell and scripted by Richard Nelson, and centered around the weekend in 1939 when King George VI and his wife visit FDR in upstate New York, Marvel plays Missy LeHand. "Missy was FDR's secretary for 21 years," Marvel said. "She lived with him down in Florida, on a houseboat, after he was diagnosed with polio, and was his right hand ever after."
Returning to the U.S. after the FDR movie, Marvel and her husband played the Jollys - "Everyman figures," she calls them - in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," and then had a role in "The Bourne Legacy," the latest in that popular Ludlumesque series. She also has a recurring role on TV's "Person of Interest" (she sometimes shoots on her "ODC" day off) and will play Ewan McGregor's boss in the upcoming HBO adaptation of Jonathan Franzen's novel "The Corrections." "I get to be very flamboyant," Marvel remarked. "I don't have to cry or rip my clothes off."
Crying - but not nudity - figures in "Other Desert Cities." "I've never done a play and then come back to it," Marvel said, "and I was interested in having that experience." She said that restoring the play's text to her memory bank was not complicated. However, "I knew the words but not the show." She elaborated: "For me, it's a totally different piece than it was at Lincoln Center. There, we were right up against the audience. Here, it's a proscenium, so the relationship is completely different."
Marvel said that the Newhouse was almost second-nature to her. "I trained in a similar space, across the street, when I was at Juilliard."
Not only the playing space has altered for Marvel. "I also have a lot of distance on doing Brooke now. When I played her before I was coming off 'The Little Foxes.' I was frazzled and a little nutty. This time I've had a break from stage performance and that makes a massive difference." She added: "I now understand better that Brooke has gotten good counsel for her illness and she has begun to do some healing - more than she perhaps knows."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.