Mercedes Ruehl: 'Zee Matriarch' of THE AMERICAN PLAN
Mercedes Ruehl is no stranger to the high-stakes of mother/daughter on-stage drama. In her 1991 Tony Award-winning performance as the intriguing "special" daughter Bella in Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers, she stood-up to her stern mother on more than one occasion. Only now, the tables have turned! Ms. Ruehl finds herself on Broadway as the mighty matriarch in Richard Greenberg's family-feud The American Plan.
In a performance Ben Brantley of the New York Times calls "masterly," Ruehl portrays Eva Adler, the German-Jewish mother to a "special" daughter Lili, vacationing in the Catskills. The summer turns interesting at the arrival of not one, but two handsome all-American boys. As a woman accustom to control, how does Eva treat these new arrivals while maintaining guard over her precious (but rebelliously curious) child?
Born in Queens, New York, Mercedes Ruehl has worked her steely magic for decades on film and stage, garnering an 1992 Academy Award & Golden Globe, 1991 Tony Award (and two other nominations, 1995 & 2002), Drama Desk Award and two Obie Awards.
After an evening of The American Plan's tight-woven drama and precarious comedy, I was elated to discover Ms. Ruehl not-only weaves herself around Greenberg's titillating language, but is a wonderful conversationalist in her own right! ("English major!" she later explained)...
Eugene Lovendusky: New York Magazine says your "matriarch is one of the grandest stage creations of the last twenty years - a great wreck of history sitting sad and sympathetic at the center of the show." Congratulations. I have to agree, from the moment you're on-stage, my eyes can't leave you. How did you tackle this woman?
Mercedes Ruehl: Some roles require a building from the foundation up; it really doesn't come to you easily. In some roles you do that very hard work where, at some point into rehearsals, where all of a sudden it snaps into place. You feel like the soul of this character is now dwelling in you. But sometimes you know right away who this person is - from the first read-through, and this happened to be what happened to me in this one. I find that once you find the sound and voice of this character you're playing, everything else follows. It comes right out of the fingertips eventually - the physicality, the gestures, the walk - for me. This may have been my little stroke of good luck.
I've always had facility with the German accent. There was a girl in my college house. Her name was Lily Anne, she was the "house boss." She would announce everything with a German accent at the bottom of the stairs. She would say [kicks into heavy Fräu accent] "Vee are haveeng a fire-dreel at oh-five-hundred hours. I vant everyvun out on zee street." She was just a crazy silly girl. We all would respond to her in-kind, and that little German accent crept in. For me, it was very funny and expressive.
I also had a wonderful nurse in a doctor's office named Rose-Marie, and [kicks into accent again] she vas from Germany and she vas tall and skeenny, and she vore senseeble shoos and a little vhite cardigan over her vhite nurse's uneeform and she had a spray of red and zilver hair and she vould say: "Now Merceedees, you see zat row of vials zer? Everyvun is going to be feeled vith your blood bevore you stand up again!"
And of course working with Irene Worth in Lost in Yonkers, she played a German-Jewish grandmother. A lot of things she did, especially the things she did with her mouth, crept into my performance. It came from many places but largely it was an unconscious assemblage of many influences that by quite a nice pleasant miracle.
Eugene: That seems so fatalistic.
Mercedes: It doesn't always happen that way - and it doesn't always mean it's going to be a better characterization from something you have to work on from the bottom-up. Of course a lot changed over rehearsals, but I started with a deep sense of who this person was. A lot of that is thanks to Richard Greenberg, because it was all there in the script.
Eugene: Fortunately, it seems you knew this character a bit beforehand - unlike the audience. In the show's first 20 minutes, your daughter Lily gives a very strict first-impression of what we should expect from you. When you do finally appear on-stage, do you feel the need to redeem Eva or to take Richard's word and create the beast?
Mercedes: Everything Eva says is indeed there in the script - it will come out - because my first responsibility is to Richard and to totally flesh-out what he wrote (and maybe surprise him by showing him what he wrote). I remember reading Stanislavski who said "When you're playing a character who's cruel, look for the places where he's kind. When you're playing a character who is unhappy, look for the places where he has a glint of merriment." It seems to me, that first speech about all the crazy foods, is really to entertain them both - there's a certain narcissistic pleasure Eva gets making the breakfast be all about her. There's superiority and a close and possessive hold she has on her daughter - those things will come out because they must come out to fulfill what Richard wrote. Then I go out and play that moment right there, it's not to redeem her particularly. To me, I don't find her an evil person. I find her quite a fascinating person with a very complicated emotional life.
Eugene: Do you feel Eva is purposely encumbering her daughter by taking on all these other roles - for example, "zee moat" - or is she just trying to be a good mother?
Mercedes: She's just trying to be a good mother. Luckily, there's subtext! If you're looking for it, it's there. Subtextually, in the beginning of Act 2, what I am playing is the very real possibility - in the two-days a WASP prince has been nosing around for another WASP prince (whether they're seen together or not) - that news has come back to me from across the lake. I have arranged at the end of Act 1, I have arranged for this thing to go forward, yes, and she will actually generate it with money - but she has to be in control. This piece of news has revealed that there is one more thing this boy is withholding from me. So she watches, she waits, Gil shows up (surprise or not surprised), here comes Nick, she watches them together, and to her, it's very clear there's something going on. In a very impulsive moment, she puts the kibosh on it. She is not happy that she has heard this new development - something not in her control. But you can also read it that she'd planned to do this all along; but then that makes her a rather gratuitously cruel woman - which I don't find interesting to play. Because gratuitous cruelty borders on the pathological, psychotic and that becomes uninteresting because there is no choice.
Eugene: How did you find theatre in your life?
Mercedes: The first theatre I ever found was in the backyard of a new suburban community in the foothills of the Poconos. My dad was a young FBI agent at his first or second posting - we're all from New York. He was posted in Scranton, Pennsylvania and he put the family in a brand new red-brick apartment. It was in a C-shape and behind it was a small hill that led up to the woods. There was a white-washed brick wall that was a perfect theatre! There were windows and all the ladies behind the windows in their apartments. I would go out there after lunch every day and sing opera (usually with religious themes because I was raised Irish-Catholic). That was the first theatre I remember because I knew those women were watching me from their kitchen windows - but I could pretend that they weren't. I must have been adorable too, because I was no more than four. The short answer is: From the very beginning. I was drawn to it to draw attention to myself. But it morphed into something that became infinitely more complex and satisfying as I pursued it as an adult.
Mercedes: This is something... that was her second time! Three days of rehearsal.
Eugene: She was phenomenal.
Mercedes: They're both so phenomenal in their own way. And different! Lily has this lambency, this light that comes out of her, this drollness and irony that is very seductive. Leah has a voice like an aspen leaf! She quivers with feeling - it's a totally different thing. I found myself listening to her and hearing things anew, with her. I found myself really marveling at the great pleasure of acting. At the infinite possibilities of good writing... it's the same way I feel about Chekov. You'll never see any two good actors approach a role in the same way. It's astounding to see what treasures this one found, and this one found. All art is autobiographical - if it's not, it's not going to quicken on-stage, and it's not going to come alive. You may be doing Richard's story, but you're also adding to the story your own autobiography and it's got to be alive and popping through the character at all times - you're talking about yourself. To watch both these girls do that has been really amazing.
I am astounded with Brenda [Pressley], too. She's got a very enigmatic inner-life. It's like this Pandora's Box that opens, lets out a few treasures, and then closes again. The boys are marvelous! They're very real and playing their relationship with a kind of ever-green simplicity. I've watched them both grow in these roles. It really has been interesting to be working with young actors.
Eugene: You've got this beautiful marriage of incredible writing, very good directing, very good actors... and some great visceral reactions from the audience. Is there a moment you most look forward to playing?
Mercedes: The last scene in Act 1 (the quizzing of the boy), for me, has the best and tightest writing. From the beginning, that scene always worked the trick. It's very clear what she's doing and she can take all the time in the world, because she's playing with him. There are also moments when real feeling comes out, especially in that last scene with Gil [Austin Lysy] when he asks if Lily is my only child. There's that speech where I have to dip into real pain, but you don't want to over-play it. That's a real challenge, to glide into that from where you are (which has been a real manipulative place). It rides on the fact that she may find what he does revolting, but she likes him. He's sort of an ace-manipulator and so is she. They both have a very dry sense of the world, probably born of pain. That for me is not always the most successful moments - but it has to be the most interesting.
When Richard put in the long speech about Mr. Adler, I thought it was very clunky with too much exposition. But he said it was in the best place it could possibly be, and the best version he'd ever wrote - so I had to figure out how to do it! There's some real pain in that speech, but also some real complexity with how much she had to do with the demise of her husband. The fading-away, was it maddening to her? Those two scenes are actually still interesting to explore. Another thing Stanislavski said is to "take the moment that is most difficult to do, and make it your favorite." Those are quickly becoming favorite moments of mine.
Eugene: Looking at your past credits, I find you falling into roles of women striving for normalcy but pushed into the margin by some incontrollable odd, like Stevie in The Goat and even back in the 70s with The Marriage of Bette and Boo. What sort of challenges do you look for in characters before you take them on?
Mercedes: I once asked Jerry Zaks "What makes you decide to direct a play?" And he said "The first thing I look for is a beginning, a middle, and an end. And you'd be surprised how rare it is!" I like language, so for me, people certainly like Edward Albee and Richard are immediately attracted because they like language and they use it such original, expansive and lyrical ways. But the character has to have some kind of arch. The character has to go through an event, and be changed by the human event. The event has to be interesting, or a new take on an old story. I have taken film-work that has been a little more cliché-written, to support myself and my family, and that's a whole kind of other challenge. It's like chopping wood: You've got to take what you can get and bless what withstands you. But in theatre! There's enough great theatre that you can find something interesting!
Manhattan Theatre Club presents THE AMERICAN PLAN, by Richard Greenberg and directed by David Grindley. Starring Mercedes Ruehl, Lily Rabe, Kieran Campion, Austin Lysy and Brenda Pressley. Now playing through March 22 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 W.47th St). For tickets and information visit www.mtc-nyc.org