Audiences leaving the Second Stage Theatre after performances of its 20th anniversary production of Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart can dig into the remnants of the big chocolate cake that the Magrath sisters tuck into at the end of the show. "Cupcake Cafe donates one for every performance, and we cut it up for the audience," says co-star Amy Ryan, who plays Meg. "Early on, we were getting notes—`The audience thinks it's a fake cake, take more bites, take more bites.' I can tell you, it is real. That cake weighs a ton—it's all butter and if I pick it up too early before my entrance in the last scene, my arms start going."
This season, Ryan is having her cake and eating it, too. A Tony nominee for her portrayal of Sonya in last year's Roundabout Theatre Company production of Uncle Vanya, the performer preceded her current turn as "cheap Christmas trash" (as Meg is described) with a role in Theatre for a New Audience's revival of Edward Bond's lacerating Saved, directed by Robert Woodruff. In Crimes, floozy Meg, who swills from a bottle of Rebel Yell bourbon, returns home to sleepy Hazelhurst, Mississippi, trailing a failed singing career and a nervous breakdown behind her; disaffected Pam, in Saved, loses her baby to a stoning by jaded young Londoners, including the boy's father, in one of the more horrific moments in theatre history.
"I thought Crimes would be a nice, easy switch over from Saved; `Oh, what a fun comedy,'" says Ryan, who began rehearsals for Crimes during the last two weeks of Saved's run. "But then you realize, `Wait a minute! There are all these family tragedies,'" (Meg found her mother hanged, a suicide). "You have to get into the truth of what's happened, make it believable, so the humor can come forth." (Mom hanged the cat along with herself, a flaky little tidbit duly noted in national newspapers.)
Grounding both plays in reality, she says, was made easier by the input of their authors. "We had Beth—who I worked with on a workshop production of Family Week at New York Stage and Film—for the first week of rehearsals, and she's with us through previews. Beth kind of shocked me; everyone knows this play, but at the second rehearsal, we were trimming and cutting it. It was great seeing that after 20 years, and the play winning the Pulitzer Prize, and her writing the film version, that she's still working on it."
One might expect Edward Bond to be an intimidating sort, but that playwright shocked her in a different way. "I was surprised: He's the most gentle man I have ever met in my life. The play is hard to watch and hard to perform—he says, `This is the truth, and this is what happens.'" The truth hurts, as was demonstrated by audience walkouts. "On opening night, there was a guy screaming, running up and down the aisles, crying `This is not art!' and slamming the door, making his exit known, all while the play was going on. He's ranting and raving—but he read the big posterboard we had up of an interview with Edward Bond and, you know what, he came back in." (It might have helped had the offended viewer known that the baby in the carriage was in fact "a big hock of ham, which the boys in the show slaughtered nightly," laughs Ryan, though she admits to a certain trepidation the first time she worked with the props.)
Part of getting to the heart of the matter in both plays was developing credible accents. Ryan hails from Queens, and all remaining traces of the native New Yorkness were rubbed out for the two shows. "On Saved, it was like a master class. We had Charmian Hoare and Cicely Berry over from the RSC, and Deborah Hecht, who teaches at NYU. They were with us continuously, tag-teaming us with exercises." Movies were helpful, particularly Gary Oldman's "Nil by Mouth," which features actors from the same part of London where Saved is set.
"But in most films, there is no specific `Mississippi' accent, just a general `Southern' wash," Ryan says, adding that she overcame "a moment of insecurity" and declined to revisit Bruce Beresford's 1986 film of Crimes, with Jessica Lange as Meg ("who I am so like—I wish!," she kids). "Deborah wanted a summer break, but I begged her to come along to Crimes. I knew she would know what I was doing wrong, and she did: I'd have some Southern things going on and then my voice was just sort of creep into Englishness again." Additional assistance came from co-star and native Mississippian Mary Catherine Garrison, who plays Babe, the Magrath who, when life gives her lemons, makes lemonade (and, with attempted murder on her plate, there's gallons to go around).
What most drew Ryan to a life of Crimes was the opportunity to work with director Garry Hynes, a Tony winner for The Beauty Queen of Leenane. There's something of a family connection there: Ryan's longtime boyfriend, Brian O'Byrne, received a Tony nomination for Leenane and a second for playwright Martin McDonagh's followup, The Lonesome West (the two performers appeared in The Sisters Rosensweig on Broadway as well).
"A lot of people are surprised that Garry is directing this, " says Ryan, copping a bit of Queens attitude. "She's Irish, but, yeah, she's also great. You mean she shouldn't direct a Greek play if she wanted to? She approached it for the truth of it. Babe isn't just some cute, crazy girl; she's a 24-year-old woman who attempted to kill her husband. Garry has said that smalltown Hazelhurst isn't much different from smalltown Ireland, in the characters you meet, and the sense of whether the community is behind you or not."
The band of outsiders that Ryan and Garrison belong to is completed onstage by Enid Graham, as timid, virginal Lenny Magrath. "We worked with Garry on creating behavior, like how when you go back home you always migrate to the chair you always sat in." Ryan says. "What was key about Garry's direction was that we didn't want to be actresses, hugging and kissing and pretending."
Ryan has been a working actor since a nine-month national tour of Biloxi Blues whisked her from New York, where she attended the famed LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts. "I'm not like Meg; for me, getting out of a small town, and having to go back, is too frightening. I've been out of work for six months at a time, and I don't panic, wanting to believe the next opportunity will happen."
So far, so good. A member of the Drama Dept., she has appeared in some of its shows (notably As Bees in Honey Drown). Thanks to her Broadway roles in Uncle Vanya, and, prior to that, Three Sisters (replacing Calista Flockhart, who left that production to film the pilot episode of "Ally McBeal"), Ryan is known as something of a "Chekhovian" performer, "though it's not like I have a `Chekhov face' or anything," she laughs. "I think it's true what they say, that all actors want to do Chekhov, but none want to sit through a production of his plays, though I do love him. I had worked with [Three Sisters director] Scott Elliott before, on The Ride Down Mt. Morgan in Williamstown, so from that I was able to go into Three Sisters for the last two weeks. I knew Uncle Vanya and wanted to play Sonya, so I worked and worked on it. It's weird, and a fluke, that two of my Broadway parts have been Chekhov, though."
As for her Tony nomination, Ryan says, "I was hoping it would mean I wouldn't have to audition anymore, but that just isn't true," she sighs, ruefully. "It's a great honor, of course. What it did was make me ask myself, `What do I want to do and who do I want to work with?'"
Two answers have come from different mediums. She had a "two-second part" in Kenneth Lonergan's "You Can Count on Me" (she appeared in a one-act play of the material that the writer-director later reworked for the screen), and has made two appearances on the A&E TV show "100 Centre St.," directed by Sidney Lumet. "He's an amazing man. On one episode, I played a hooker, with colored wigs, a way to make your mom proud," she laughs, adding that her mom, and her theatre-going friends, took in Aida, and Saved, on the same weekend. "They loved Aida," Ryan reports. ("Mom loved Saved, too," she whispers.)
When Crimes ends its scheduled run on May 14, the performer, happily, finds herself with some down time. She and O'Byrne are planning a trip to Ireland, and she hopes to take in as many Mets games as she can. Though she won't be eligible for a Tony this year, she nevertheless has a stake in the nominations. "You get free shampoo in the gift bags you receive for being nominated," she relates. "Brian has been nominated two years in a row, I was nominated last year, and we haven't had to buy shampoo once in three years. But we're running low. I told my old friend Kevin Chamberlin that if he's nominated for Seussical he has to give me his shampoo."