When asked to describe her professional life in 2010, Elizabeth Marvel replies, with healthy self-deprecation: "I feel like I've been on a hamster wheel." First, there was Book of Grace, at New York's Public, where she played a Southern waitress in an abusive marriage. Next came Regina Giddens, the battling Southern aristocrat in New York Theatre Workshop'sThe Little Foxes, a production that is showing up on a lot of Best of 2010 lists. And now in Other Desert Cities Marvel's doing Brooke Wyeth, a writer whose politics are at odds with those of her Palm Springs parents.
"There's no through line leading me from one of these parts to the other," said Marvel the other day, as she sat near her dressing-room mirror at LCT. She said of all her roles that Brooke seems closest to one from years ago, Iphigenia. "There's something very Greek about this new play -- a sister and a brother in alliance against the parents, for example. That's very classical."
Marvel, who graduated from Juilliard in 1992, in a talent-packed class that included Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Hayden, said she has been thinking a lot about how Brooke, a liberal, depression-prone writer, could spring from conservative, gregarious parents, played by Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach.
"Child-development specialists say that we are forged between birth and the age of five," Marvel said. "So Brooke's literary talent and toughness just didn't come about when she left home to go to college." She continued: "Brooke sprang from two clever, charming parents, who give emotional prizes to those who are clever and charming."
Marvel, whose LCT resume includes Edward Albee's Seascape and An American Daughter, confessed that to play Brooke she's been thinking about depression. "Just because people are depressed doesn't mean that they can't have periods of being incredibly dynamic; sometimes, the dynamism is key to their overall emotional character." And as for Brooke's literary side, Marvel said: "I have a lot of friends who are writers, and I've talked to them about what it takes to write about one's family, like Brooke has done...They say that if you have a good story you will do anything to preserve it. That helped me to understand Brooke's tenacity."
For Marvel, another challenging aspect of Other Desert Cities is working with a lot of set and props. "I don't usually do that," she explained, citing the bare-stage concept of The Little Foxes. "I find it thrilling as an artist to have to rely mostly on your body to express a character. This new play takes me in another direction." Marvel, known for the brilliant intensity she brings to serious roles, said that to play humor, as she does here and there in Other Desert Cities, has also felt fairly new to her. "I'm not used to a lot of set-ups and punchlines, and I've had to refine my ability to allow pauses for the laughs."
Her current assignment's combination of drama and comedy led Marvel to mention Spalding Gray, whose photo she has on her LCT-dressing-room mirror, right above a beautiful picture of her 4-year-old son, Silas. (Marvel is married to the actor Bill Camp.) Marvel said that she thought of Gray immediately upon reading Other Desert Cities. "He was incredibly funny and acerbic and also devastatingly broken," Marvel said, citing the profound effect that seeing Gray's Swimming to Cambodia had on her as a young actor. "It feels right to be doing Other Desert Cities at a theater where Spalding Gray himself performed so often."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.