It’s been a busy 18 months for Seana Kofoed. During that time, she has made her Broadway debut, jumped immediately into an Off-Broadway drama, earned a Drama Desk nomination and hit one of the major summer festivals. As a result of this series of breaks, Kofoed (the last name rhymes with "moped") has just landed her first headlining role in New York, in Neena Beber’s Hard Feelings at the Women’s Project & Productions.
Even on the second night of previews, the 29-year-old actress appeared in command of the constant mood shifts of the darkish comedy, in which she plays a lesbian electrologist with job, romantic and family troubles. Kofoed says the seesawing emotions—her character bursts into wrenching tears even as she’s tying up and gagging her lecherous creative writing teacher—were built into Beber’s script. "You don’t have to throw yourself at the writing with Neena, so the turns are instinctual," she says. "And it’s heightened, which helps.
"It’s really a lovely play, and I don’t mean that in a trite way. It’s heartwarming and, in the best sense of the word, human."
Kofoed, a Chicago native, studied theatre at Northwestern University and then stayed in Chicago for a few years before moving to New York. She has performed at several of the top regional theatres and spent this summer at the Berkshire Theater Festival, where she starred in Toys in the Attic for director John Tillinger.
She says the 1998 Manhattan Theater Club production of Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water, also directed by Tillinger, marked the point where she officially shifted from struggling actress to working actress. Her portrayal as the most neurotic of three mourning sisters made an impression on the playwright, who asked Kofoed to take part in a reading of her next play, the century-hopping drama An Experiment With an Air Pump. Kofoed credits Stephenson and Tillinger with much of her success so far. "John Tillinger is really almost singlehandedly responsible for keeping me off the street," she says. In addition to "Toys" and "Memory," he has cast her twice as a maid, first in a Long Wharf production of Blithe Spirit and then in the Broadway production of Night Must Fall. The latter surprised many by running for almost five months, by far Kofoed’s longest run (she calls it "the little show that could).
While Night Must Fall marked Kofoed’s Broadway debut, Air Pump first brought her to the attention of many New York critics. A thumbnail description of the role—tragic Scottish hunchback servant girl—sounds like a caricature in the making, but Kofoed’s understated, poignant portrayal gave the Stoppardian play an emotional core and earned her unanimous praise from the critics.
"It was one of those things that I thought would be a lot harder than it really was," she says of the physical demands of the role. She met with doctors to learn about hunchbacks and worked with a dialogue coach, but she says the toughest part was reining in some of the more emotional scenes. "I have a tendency to do too much sometimes, and everyone said, ‘Less, less.’ " Their advice paid off: The role earned Kofoed a Drama Desk nomination. It also put her on the map as a potential leading lady, a potential that has been filled with Hard Feelings.
Still, she’s not sure what comes next, although Stephenson has already broken it to her that her next play has no parts for young actresses. Like so many other actors, she hopes the SAG strike will be resolved soon, as much of her revenue has come from commercials in the last few years. (She’s also eager for the weather to get warmer so that her main commercial, a Progresso soup ad with a skiing motif, starts running again.)
Kofoed aims to add a few more TV or film credits to her resume. "I have to make a concerted effort to do that in the next year. The goal is still to have theatre as the base, but with TV or film work sprinkled in." And despite the Drama Desk nod and the lead role, Kofoed has not yet reached the point where scripts are simply handed to her. She says she enjoys seeing shows during her time off, but she mainly plans to jump right back into auditioning after Hard Feelings. "I enjoy having a few weeks, maybe a month, off between shows, but then I’m eager to get back to work."
— Eric Grode