BWW Interview: Cynthia Mace Is Master of the Stairs in SKINTIGHT
There's a lot of heavy lifting going on in Joshua Harmon's new non-musical comedy, Skintight. The toting is mostly accomplished by Cynthia Mace's character Orsolya, a Hungarian servant in an affluent family.
Neurotic Jodi Issac (Tony-winning Idina Menzel) is an LA lawyer thrumming with anxiety. She's in town to see her father, Elliot (Jack Wetherall), for some solace after learning that her ex is on the verge of marrying a fit 24-year-old.
Elliot, about to turn 70, has his own news involving his partner, Trey (Will Brittain), a pumped 20-year-old who sometimes walks around in a stylish jock.
Benjamin (Eli Gelb), Jodi's gay son, has also come to crash at Elliot's sleek, contemporary West Village townhouse. Orsolya keeps things in check as she takes care of housekeeping and family secrets. A gleaming modern staircase is more or less Orsolya's racetrack.
The director, Daniel Aukin, was interested in the servants "because they're completely trusted and they see everything," Mace said after a matinee. "Not only that, she knows how to keep things to herself. Character actors get the best roles."
Working with Harmon and Aukin was a particular lure for Mace, a veteran stage actor. "I'm so lucky to have gotten this part," she said. "Everyone in New York would have given their eyeteeth to get it."
One of the reasons she thinks she drew the casting director's attention was her wardrobe choice.
"I was the only one who showed up in a skirt," Mace said. "I took the character to heart. She's Hungarian, needs a job and made some wardrobe choices to reflect what she would choose. I was perfect for the part. I had every kind of job imaginable including being a servant for rich people," she said with a laugh.
"It's amazing when you get to birth a new play. Coming to rehearsal is still a thrill-creatively we keep on flowing and get to the heart of Skintight," Mace said. "I got to learn a little bit of Hungarian and I make sounds that are not in my brain."
Mace has learned that comedy is best when underplayed. "It's really fun to be funny as long as you don't overdo it," she said. "SKINTIGHT is a comedy, but it has a lot of heart. I know people need something a little lighter sometimes, in this climate."
Harmon's play holds up a mirror to society's conception of beauty. Characters provide a constant narrative about youth and maturity that might make theatergoers question their own feelings about aging.
"The family evolves, I hope, and they're still connected to one another at the end. The play says where the family is at the moment, and they're not sold on the idea that there is only inner beauty," Mace said. "With Orsolya, her history is in her face and legs and she's at peace with that," she laughed.
"Even the silences to me are important to the story," Mace said. "Especially when they are trying to figure out how to communicate. They have what's probably the first real conversation. I think they learn to appreciate each other in a different way. Maybe it's the beginning of their own inner beauty."
Mace was in the world premiere of ANGELS IN AMERICA: MILLENUM APPROACHES and PERESTROIKA (at the Mark Taper Forum) as Harper, among scores of other film and television appearances.
"How about that, being able to work on a new play?" Tony Kushner, ANGELS' author, "is still changing people's lives," she said. "That part lies in my heart every day. I re-read it and realized how powerful our medium it is.
"I'm having a great time," said Mace, who can play 50 to 70 years old. "I don't think aging matters so much in the theater. I think our casting community will take the best person for a role, regardless of real age."
Mace relishes playing an immigrant in spite of her roots. "I don't bring an immigrant background to the role because I'm a Mayflower Yankee," she laughed. "But I've been listening over and over to Hungarian tapes to get the sounds just right."
The audience response has been so enthusiastic that a few lines had to be cut because people were laughing too loudly. "There were a couple of parts we had to cut out because they were too funny," she said. "We had to listen to 500 people laugh themselves breathless." Laughs fill the theater when Mace hauls the suitcase up and down the considerable stairs. Botox figures prominently as well, provoking more laughs.
"I do 379 stairs on a matinee day. Not bad for an old dog," Mace noted.
"Sometimes I feel a little bad because I've been a character actor my whole life," she said with a laugh. "I wasn't the one that got kissed."
Mace was drawn to live performance at a precocious age. "When I was 11, my dad was a traveling salesman so we moved around a lot," she recalled. "I was always the new kid, never quite fitting in." While living in California, her parents took the kids to a church with a young minister from Alabama.
"He would write plays to get kids into the church, and I thought I was doing something important," she said. "I never lost that feeling."
Even with an eight-performance week, Mace finds time to meditate. "We have tight quarters, but next door is a church that's always open to the public," she said. "One day it was just me and the homeless people. I find it a really good place to meditate and clear my head."
Mace stays fit just by showing up.
"There are 17 stairs going up this beautiful set on one staircase and 12 steps down a spiral one," she said.
Mace considers herself fortunate to be working with such a stellar cast in a much-acclaimed production.
"I always hoped I would find the thing that makes your heart sing," she said. "I'm lucky I know what I love doing and get to do it."
Skintight is playing at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre/Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street. Set design by Lauren Helpern, costumes by Jess Goldstein, lighting by Pat Collins, original music and sound design by Eric Shimelonis.