By Robert Cashill That sound you hear piercing the velvety darkness in Central Park is not the sound of a woman in distress, though it was her screeches and wails that brought the police to the Delacorte Theatre a couple of weeks ago. It is, rather, the sound of Allison Janney trying out Shakespeare for the first time onstage.
"Can you believe this?" she says, scanning a Page Six gossip item in The New York Post that appeared a couple of days after her brush with the law during a preview performance of The Taming of the Shrew. Considering her notoriety, she adds: "I've never gotten to throw tantrums like these before. And I have a big voice."
No argument there. No one can put a stamp on the role of Kate quite like a formidable six footer, which this actress is. Combine sinew that reflects years of practice at dance and figure skating, and the lung-power of a foghorn, and you have a Kate who dropkicks Petruchio and most of the supporting cast like Emma Peel, and vents her rage at a decibel level to silence any cricket or passing bird that might dare interrupt her. This Kate could toss the Kate of Meryl Streep, who played the part at the Delacorte in 1978, into nearby Turtle Pond with the back of her hand, and send the 1990 Kate of Tracey Ullman scurrying for shelter within Belvedere Castle.
Given her full-throated rendition, her initial reaction to being offered the part is something of a surprise. "I was terrified," she recalls, when the Public Theater called her in March. Allison Janney, afraid? Slap me, Kate. However, she explains: "I'd studied Shakespeare at RADA one summer long ago, but I've never performed his work, and I think the only way I would have done it was this way, which was to be offered it. Performing it in New York is especially harrowing; you're going to be compared to everyone who did it before, and everyone has their own idea as to how it should be done. And," she says, with a gale of laughter that slowly rises from the depths of her tonsils, "we are definitely taking liberties."
And how. Helmed by Mel Shapiro, who directed the popular Shakespearean musical Two Gentlemen from Verona, this Shrew is full to bursting with antic additions to the text, including a Gorgeous George wrestling costume for the Petruchio of Jay O. Sanders in the first act and a chorus of singing monks who break into an eleven o' clock number before the final banquet. With some of her co-stars requiring taming at every moment, no wonder Kate is such a harpy, though the surrounding zaniness plays into Janney's conception of the part. Even when she and Sanders treat the lovely, flower-bedded Renaissance set like a mat placed outdoors by the World Wrestling Federation, their scenes together register as oases of sanity. "I think Kate's incredibly smart," Janney says. "Everyone else thinks she's shrewish, so she gives them what they want, but actually she's a really bright woman who can't find anyone she can talk to. The way Jay plays off me as Petruchio is wonderful, because in the end what I'm hoping to show is that they're a team and they play games together." Referring to Kate's pledge of wifely obedience at the end of the play, which often rings hollow to modern ears, she says, "She's found someone she loves and who loves her and she doesn't have to be so angry all the time. As to whether or not she believes everything she's telling him, she doesn't, totally, I think- she's continuing to play a game with him."
New York theatregoers have been having fun with Janney for years. Her voice, and her carriage, make her ideal for Noel Coward; she played some of his best female parts while a student at Kenyon College, then delighted Broadway with a turn in Present Laughter. Last season, in a dramatic switch, she won a Drama Desk award and a Tony Award nomination as the long-suffering Beatrice Carbone in the acclaimed revival of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, a heartbreaking performance. At about the same time, filmgoers enjoyed one of her most delicious onscreen roles, as the "wicked stepsister" of Jennifer Aniston in The Object of My Affection, smacking 2x4s of sarcasm over the head of the hapless "Friends" star (Which pale in comparison to a well deserved thrashing administered to a Playbill On-Line reporter, about which more later.) Janney came in cold to her latest role. "I had read the play, but I'd never seen it performed before, not even the Elizabeth Taylor film." Her only encounter with the material was, ironically, via her most recent film, a bastard Shrew set in a high school and called 10 Things I Hate About You. "I played Miss Perky, a guidance counselor with a funny voice and a funny hairdo, and, no, there's no equivalent to her in the play," she laughs.
Funny glasses (her own, which she wore in rehearsals and decided to keep) helped her find Kate for the Delacorte. So did Sanders' five-year-old, who was dazzled by her hysterics, "which come from whatever's making me crazy that day. My daily frustrations go right into that moment, and I don't care if I lose my voice completely for the rest of the run if the response is good. Physically and vocally, this is just about the hardest thing I've ever done, and while the Delacorte is a magical place to perform, a little wind in the evening blowing through my hair is always appreciated; God, I just sweat up there!"
Right now, the rest of her career would seem to be no sweat. Entertainment Weekly magazine recently named her an "It" girl, which usually happens when a theatre veteran graduates to a high-profile TV show, as is the case with Janney. This fall she starts what she hopes will be a long run, "if no one is sick of politics," as man-hungry press secretary C.J. Craig in "The West Wing," a weekly helping of Washington skullduggery co-created by John Wells ("E.R.") and playwright-turned-to-TV scribe Aaron Sorkin ("Sports Night"). Her co-stars include Martin Sheen and Rob Lowe, "both of whom, coincidentally, grew up in Dayton, like me."
From Ohio to NYC and L.A. is a heady journey, one that began back at Kenyon, when this would-be psych major turned to acting. "I just couldn't take the lab rats," she says, with a shudder. In her freshman year, she appeared in a Michael Christofer play that Kenyon alum Paul Newman directed at the university. "Joanne Woodward starred, and she said, 'You have to come to the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York,' and eventually, I did, as part of a company of actors she directed for a while." Day jobs, including a receptionist at a recording studio and a stint scooping ice cream in Soho, tided her over as she gathered steam as a performer, appearing off-Broadway at Naked Angels, Manhattan Theatre Club, and the Atlantic Theatre Company.
It's fun to imagine her terrorizing misbehaving kids while behind the ice cream counter, but this was not the case. "I wasn't up to handling the abuse of New Yorkers, so I had to quit that job," she says. "I'm a real worrier, actually. I pinch myself not to worry too much about everything. Several people here at the show are designated to come up to me and say 'Have a good time. Enjoy it!' I make them come up to me," she laughs.
On a recent Tuesday, a Playbill On-Line reporter who had come to her dressing room at the newly refurbished Delacorte before an afternoon rehearsal added briefly to her anxieties. Talk turned to future Shakespearean roles; she'd maybe like to tackle Rosalind in As You Like It, and discussed the possibility of appearing in Much Ado About Nothing with Alfred Molina, possibly at the Roundabout with Bridge's Michael Mayer directing (but added that with she and Molina both in fall TV series, this may very well be much ado about nothing, at least for the moment). The interviewer asked if she'd try a tragedy, possibly Lady Mac...well, no need to go there again.
"I wouldn't consider a tragedy, least of all that one," she replied, in disbelief that a member of the press would dare invoke the Scottish play in her presence mere hours before showtime. Flames seemed to spring up in her hair; her eyes narrowed to small slits. "And now you have to go outside the dressing room, spin around in a circle three times, and spit." Which the reporter, after a bit of coaxing, duly did. Maybe because she maintained a steely charm throughout the whole episode, which ended in one of her storms of laughter. "One...two...three...all right, you can just mimic the spitting," she smiled, relaxing from a gorgon glare back into her usual Ohio gal mode.
Clearly, unwary New Yorkers will abuse her no longer. Other journalists might, though, now that she is primed to hit the big time on the small screen. "I am a little apprehensive about it; I know Kristen Johnston ('Third Rock from the Sun" star and fellow Delacorte alum, from last summer's "The Skin of Our Teeth") and it was crazy for her, with reporters going through her trash. All you'll find in my trash is Haagen-Dazs containers and some candy bar wrappers," she asserts.
"I'm not the kind of person to think, 'I've got a big TV show, I've got it made,' If it ends in three months, I'll come back to New York, and do theatre, where I'm most comfortable. And I know a bit about fame, living and working here. When I did the film "Big Night" a few years back was the first time people started looking at me in the street, which was a wild feeling. 'You're in that movie, right?' I had a very humbling moment at around that time. I was in the subway, and all these people were staring at me, and I thought, very proudly, 'Hey, I'm really getting well-known in this town.' But then I looked down and realized my shirt was unbuttoned down to my waist. It was one of those moments when God says, 'Watch what you're thinking there!'"
She doesn't think much about her age, which Entertainment Weekly noted as 38. "Age has been very good to me; the older I've gotten, the more I've worked, in parts I never dreamed I could get, that I wouldn't have gotten if I were a sensation at 23. I'm my own worst casting director: I never thought I would be right for Beatrice or Kate, but I've gotten to do roles that are completely different from each other." Like, for example, Loretta, the "low-down, dirty-talking, trailer trash woman in Minnesota who loves to pick up men" she plays in the upcoming beauty pageant spoof "Drop Dead Gorgeous," her latest film.
"Of course, you can give my age as 32," she laughs, as she heads out from her un-cursed dressing room to soak up a few rays before rehearsing. "Designer's orders. Our costumer, Marina Draghici, says I have to sit in the sun to even out my color for the outfits to look right." Finding a place in the sun, she concludes, "I'm always working on something, even if it is just my tan line."