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BWW Interviews: Kathryn Erbe, Star of Stage & Screen

She became a familiar face in America's living rooms with her 10 years on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, but since that TV series ended in 2011, Kathryn Erbe has returned to her first love, theater. She is currently portraying one soldier's mother--and another's hallucination, or perhaps his salvation--in Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait, the new off-Broadway play (AZAK for short) written and directed by Daniel Talbott, artistic directory of Rising Phoenix Repertory.

Now in previews and set for a June 9 opening, AZAK is presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, not at the company's usual home on Waverly Place but in the Gym at Judson (Memorial Church), also in Greenwich Village. It's the third Rattlestick play--and the second costarring Seth Numrich--that Erbe's done since hanging up her badge as NYPD detective Alexandra Eames, partner of Vincent D'Onofrio's Det. Robert Goren. Last year she starred as a bisexual artist battling addiction in Rattlestick's Ode to Joy, opposite Arliss Howard and Roxanna Hope. Her other post-Law & Order theater credits include Nikolai and the Others at Lincoln Center Theater and Vineyard Theatre's Checkers.

BroadwayWorld interviewed Erbe on a bench in Washington Square Park, across the street from Judson. The park was full of cap-and-gown-clad graduates and their loved ones lingering from the graduation held earlier in the day for NYU--which just happens to be Erbe's alma mater.

How'd your collaboration with Rattlestick start?
The first play that I did with them was Daniel Talbott's Yosemite. An actress dropped out at the last minute. My agent is Seth's agent and is very good friends with Daniel, and he suggested me for the part, and I had a blast and really fell in love with Daniel's writing. I feel like his perspective is different from anybody else's, and the way that he articulates things is in so many ways exactly what I want to hear on a deep level. The way he talks about love, the way he talks about humanity. So I couldn't wait to work with him again. After that show, [Rattlestick artistic director] David Van Asselt said, "I'm going to find something else for you," and that's how I ended up doing Craig Lucas' play Ode to Joy, which was a two-year, life-changing journey for me. That was also the fifth play I did in 2½ years, and I needed to take a break. Just from being away from home the way you are when you do theater--missing bedtimes and stuff--so I basically swore off plays. And then I found myself in the audience of Tina Landau's production of Big Love. That play made me feel (A) like I wanted to be in love again and (B) I had this little voice that said, "Hm, maybe I'd really like to do a play again." And Daniel called me, if not the next day, two days after. I have a very hard time saying no to him.

Roxanna Hope (left) and Kathryn Erbe in Ode to Joy

What was "life-changing" about Ode to Joy?
Playing that character, Adele, became very close to my heart. Just her life struggle, playing a complicated character like that, but mainly just what happens when you work on something with people over a long period of time--the friendships that develop. It's really special, this work in the theater when you're all sort of in the trenches together. It can be a really fulfilling experience, and working with Craig and Arliss and Roxanna, we all were of the same sort of mindset, and it felt blessed.
The first time we read it, we did a public reading at the Cherry Lane, and that went over so well. I'm a company member of Atlantic, I've been trying to find something to do over there for years, and Neil [Pepe, Atlantic AD] was hoping possibly we'd do it at Atlantic. It took a while for the slot to open up at Rattlestick, so we did readings of it.

Do you especially enjoy acting in new plays as opposed to revivals?
I just go where the work is. I love what Rattlestick stands for in terms of supporting new work and doing work that other people maybe wouldn't be brave enough to do, and it feels like it's about the work more than it is about anything else.
Working with Daniel and working with Rattlestick exposed me to a whole community of young playwrights and directors and actors in New York which I felt completely cut off from doing Law & Order. I really didn't do anything besides Law & Order when I was doing that job. Daniel has this huge community with Rising Phoenix and the stuff they do at Jimmy's. His philosophy of you can make theater anywhere with anything for no money, you can do a play in a day, that it's for the people, by the people, of the people, I really love that. I want to support him in whatever way I can, whether it's doing site-specific work in somebody's backyard on Long Island, or this.

Erbe and Seth Numrich in Afghanistan, Zimbabwe,
America, Kuwait

What can you tell us Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait?
Well, it's a play about war. A postapocalyptic near-future. I think it's an antiwar play. Not an anti-soldier play. There's some dream states, there's some nightmares, there's a lot coming at the audience in lots of different ways and lots of different levels. I would say there are aspects of it that are bleak, and very beautiful. We're here [at Judson] because it's a great big open square. They've basically built a desert in there. It's gorgeous to look at, the technology that they're using in terms of projections and the lighting and the music.

Is it set in those places named in the title?
It's in the desert; it could be many places.

What does it say that maybe hasn't been heard in other works about war?
You know, I don't have a lot of experience seeing a lot of war films, plays about war, soldiers. It's not what I'm necessarily drawn to, but more and more I find myself being sucked into things like The Walking Dead that is not something that I would think I would like at all intellectually. And I don't respond to it intellectually; I respond to it with my heart: the way the world feels like it's going, the way we've f---ed up the environment, quite probably beyond repair, and we're all moving in the direction of trying to figure out how to survive what we've done. I find myself drawn to things that feel more like life-or-death, and how do we get by, how do we work together to get through where we find ourselves in a wasteland. I think that's what Daniel's trying to get at.

With Noah Galvin and Libby Woodbridge in Daniel Talbott's Yosemite

What kind of audience reactions are you anticipating?
I will be curious to see. Like all of Daniel's work, it encompasses all aspects of humanness. There's some really ugly stuff and there's some really beautiful stuff. I hope that it will be moving and also really thought-provoking about war and about the cost of war and where we're headed.

How did you prepare for this role?
I've done some research in terms of reading things written by soldiers, written by mothers of soldiers. Right now I'm reading Trumbo's book Johnny Got His Gun, and just thinking about war and the politics of war, the money involved. I love that Pope Francis is talking about how people are making a lot of money off of wars.

Have you done political theater in the past?
That's where I thought I would go when I was in college. I was very interested in political theater, and I did a lot of it while I was at school, and imagined myself having that kind of life--doing theater for specific communities to try to bring about activism and be an activist myself. Somebody might go to see Craig's piece and think it was a political statement in that my character had both a husband and a girlfriend, but it was just up there. The Grapes of Wrath could be considered political, and Speed of Darkness was about Vietnam vets and how their lives were altered by the war.

You mentioned seeing Big Love at Signature Theatre last winter. Have you seen other shows in New York recently that made an impression on you?
I have, yeah. The Insurgents at Labyrinth and Bedlam's two versions of Twelfth Night. I loved Rasheeda Speaking. I absolutely loved Fun Home--I feel like that's kind of a miracle of a show. I just saw An American in Paris and I loved that, for other reasons. I really love being an audience member as much as I like being an actor.

With Vincent D'Onofrio in Law & Order: Criminal Intent

Did Law & Order feel theatrical in any way?
We got to work with so many amazing New York theater actors. And Vincent, obviously, is just a hugely talented actor, hugely creative, and was always coming up with theatrical ways of doing that job. And it's not on paper--a lot of that came out of his own head and a collaboration between him and Rene [Balcer, co-creator of the series]. The scenes I had a lot of fun with were where we were putting on characters to catch a criminal, where we'd really get to skewer people.

Would you ever do episodic television again?
Sure I would. It was nice to have a steady job, and a family, so to speak, of a crew that we worked with for 11 years. It scares me to think about just because of what it does mean for your life, and I hopefully would be choosy in what I do.
Once I got over the sort of shock of the life change that [doing a TV series] is, I cried. Every day I would cry, missing my daughter--she was 5 when we started [Law & Order] , and I was gone for 18 hours five days a week, would come home as the sun was coming up on a Saturday morning. I think during that time I felt very much like a worker bee: go and punch the clock, do my job, go home, try to have as much of a home life as I could.

You got your first professional job while still in college, so you've had a long career at this point. Does it ever feel like you've been at it too long?
Sometimes I wonder, because the business has changed so much. I'm almost 50. I refuse to get plastic surgery of any kind. I don't tweet, I don't have a website. I don't even own my name [as a URL]; someone else bought it, so I'd have to buy it from someone if I wanted to create a website with my name. I'm not willing to adapt in the way that a lot of people are, and that's been my case really from the beginning. I've always put my kids and my family first. So those choices have maybe affected my opportunities. Now in my "old age"--my middle age--I just want to be happy, and enjoy being home when I'm home and enjoy working when I'm working. I used to spend a lot of time in the not-so-distant past worrying about work and what other people are doing and why am I not doing it, and I don't want to do that anymore. I really am so happy with the opportunities that come my way, and I love being home. I have a really full life--dogs, kids... My daughter's at Bennington, and my son is 11. He's going into sixth grade, so there's a lot still to be done at home.

What else have you been working on lately?
I'm involved with several new plays in development, a couple of which I've been attached to for a year or more--playwrights who I love whose work I really want to be a part of and support. As far as any concrete thing, I don't have anything lined up. Turning 50.

Any special birthday plans?
I'm hopefully going to take my kids to Disney World. Hopefully going to go on a trip with my sister and some of my girlfriends. Go to New Hampshire--my mom turned 75, and her husband turned 90, so we're going to have a triple birthday celebration. It's going to be a whole summer of celebration of life. That sounds good to me.

Photo of AZAK: Joan Marcus; Ode to Joy, Yosemite: Sandra Coudert; Law & Order: Criminal Intent: Will Hart/NBC Universal]

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