Death-Defying Acting: Polly Draper Enters Her Blue Period on the New York Stage

Death-Defying Acting: Polly Draper Enters Her Blue Period on the New York Stage Don't look for Polly Draper to be performing in any gala events for Presidential hopeful George W. Bush. His family has had quite enough of her kind of acting, thank you very much.
Polly Draper as the photographer Anna in Closer.
Polly Draper as the photographer Anna in Closer. (Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus)

Don't look for Polly Draper to be performing in any gala events for Presidential hopeful George W. Bush. His family has had quite enough of her kind of acting, thank you very much.

"About four years ago, I was in this Broadway show, Crazy He Calls Me," she relates. "My character was fascinating, a Russian Jew in the '30s who was insane, but she was very much a character in search of a play. Basically, I seemed to spend the whole time up there masturbating my co-star, Barry Miller. My parents brought Barbara Bush to see it."

Explain.

"My father works for the United Nations, so my mom became friends with Barbara Bush through that and they brought her to see her daughter the stage star. I was too embarrassed to tell my mom why she might not want to bring her -- 'I'm not sure you're going to want her there,' I said. And she responded, 'Are you kidding? I'm so proud.' So she brought her, and I'm up there, masturbating away. I heard that her whole Secret Service contingent leaned in and said, 'Are you all right, Mrs. Bush?' and she said, with some embarrassment of her own, 'I'm fine, I'm fine.' She was very...genteel...afterwards. But she said later to my husband, 'That was the most godawful play I have ever seen!'"

Dropping her smoky voice to a whisper, she says, with a chuckle, "She may have been right." Forging ahead from this humiliation, Draper is much like her most popular creation, the lovelorn mess, Ellyn Warren, on TV's "thirtysomething," whose weekly travails won the actress an Emmy nomination. It helps that the New York City theatrical community has wiped the slate clean of her on stage onanism, with a few roles since then, and now giving her a first, then a second, and now a third chance to redeem herself on the boards this year. "I think it's just a matter of people saying, 'Oh God, she's back, let's put her in another play,' " she laughs.

This spring, the actress appeared in Peter Hedges' Imagining Brad, a Drama Dept. production. She then went directly to Broadway in June, replacing Natasha Richardson in Closer. During her run in Closer, she participated in a reading of Trudy Blue, which marks the return of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman ('night, Mother) after a lengthy hiatus. The show, which opens the MCC Theater's season beginning Dec. 2, was to have starred Donna Murphy, but her departure left the door open for Draper.

The avid resumption of her stage career coincides with her full-time return to New York from Los Angeles a couple of years ago. "My husband's a jazz musician, so the move was good for him, and we have a son in nursery school. I'd periodically return here to do films and plays, most recently Four Dogs and a Bone, and I'd always held on to my apartment. It's a fun place to be." And also more complementary to her muse: "I'm not one of those performers who goes on and on about my crafffft," she drawls, with a faux British accent. "But in L.A., the business side of performing is irrational. Things like who's in what hit at which time are more important than ability. I had a hard time getting used to that; I'd rather do interesting work."

Clad in a rehearsal-ready getup of jeans and a flannel shirt at the MCC Theater, Draper discusses the latest role to capture her imagination-quite literally, as it turns out. She plays Ginger, a cancer-stricken writer who turns to her vivacious (and conniving) creation, Trudy Blue, to help prepare her estranged family for her imminent demise. Wit warmed over? The parallels between the two works, both of which originated at the MCC Theater, are only surface-deep, Draper says.

"I'm having real conversations with imaginary people, and imaginary conversations with real people," Ginger laments, as she slips in and out of the fictional world she has fabricated for Trudy Blue. Explaining her attraction to the part, Draper says, "Ginger finds she hasn't appreciated her real life enough as she deflects her terror with fantasy. The interaction between the real and the imagined does have a comic side, like in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" or Harvey, but the drama is excruciatingly truthful. It spoke to me as an actress, and I think it will especially speak to anyone with an artistic side-your art always keeps you from fully experiencing the other parts of your life, as your mind is working all the time on several things all at once."

Not that she's complaining about that. Her return to her artistic roots on the New York stage was preceded by her evolution to "hyphenate" status, writing, acting in, and co-producing a film called "The Tic Code," to be released next spring. This labor of love originated from her relationship with her husband, Michael Wolff, who at the time they met was the bandleader on "The Arsenio Hall Show." On their first date, she noticed something unusual about him.

"I first thought he was laughing at all my jokes, which I loved. Then I thought he was coughing, then it seemed he was humming continuously...and then I knew something was wrong. I thought, 'Well, that's too bad. He seemed like such a great guy, too bad he blew his mind out on drugs.'" Trying to get to the bottom of his odd behavior, including curious facial movements, she simply asked, in her down-to-business way, "What's wrong with you?" ("I didn't quite say it that way," she laughs, "but he did say I was the only person rude enough to ask.")

What was wrong with him, it turned out, was Tourette's syndrome, the neurological disorder characterized by physical and vocal tics. "He found out that he had it in his late 30s, only five years before we met. He had been to psychiatrists when he was younger, which didn't help, then went through an entire lifetime hoping no one would notice -- which meant an entire lifetime of people noticing, and not asking, or blurting out 'What was that?' if it erupted, and him just ignoring them."

Not one for being ignored, Draper explored the affliction further as their relationship recovered from its awkward start. "He has no inhibitors; his sense of humor is more interesting and wild than others', and he's just a freer thinker, which I admire about him. A number of musicians have Tourette's, which is part of why he's such a brilliant musician; he doesn't play by the rules."

Five years ago, Draper decided to write a screenplay loosely based on her husband's experiences. In "The Tic Code," she plays a mother whose 12 year-old musician son is schooled in the ways of the disorder by a jazzman portrayed by Gregory Hines. "It's not about Tourette's, but about how we all have things about ourselves that make us feel we don't fit in," she says. Writing the script took three weeks -- "making what is such a tough sell was about the hardest thing I've ever done."

For his part, Wolff was initially angered "that I had exposed him in such a way; he hated me for it." Gradually, he warmed to the project, which amounted to a painful coming-out for him. "My feeling is that none of us should be ashamed of who we are, and part of who he is, is having Tourette's," Draper says. Over the last year the film, which has won praise from Tourette's Syndrome organizations ("one viewer said it was the first treatment that made him feel he could be someone that someone else would want to move next door to") has racked up audience awards at the Berlin, Vancouver, and Hamptons International Film Festivals; its score, composed by Wolff, is soon to be released by Blue Note.

"Fascinated by what makes people tick," Draper was instantly drawn to playwright-director Patrick Marber's Closer, which has the true-to life tang that animates her enthusiasm for a project. "When I saw the play in England, two years ago, I dreamt about it, and told Michael that Anna was a part I should be doing. I was naive: I didn't know what the big plays were over there, and that it had already won 27,000 awards. I thought I was the only one discovering it, and that I could get the rights to produce it in the US." Proven wrong, "I thought, 'Well, that's it for that one...'"

Marber gave her a welcome crack at the material when it came time to replace Richardson, the original Anna on Broadway. The part was subtly Americanized ("we threw out things we would never say in a million years, like 'Oh, romantic tosh.'"), but the open wounds of the text remained as is. "He and I saw eye to eye about it," she recalls. "It's so spare and emotional, not a play about manipulation, as the reviewers seemed to think, but about love and passion. My character was so human; nothing ever worked out neatly for her. I understood their vulnerability, their going from person to person and screwing up."

Draper admits she never quite understood her UK-born co-stars, Rupert Graves, Anna Friel, and Ciaran Hinds. "They all had such strong accents when offstage. Very beautiful, but when they'd talk to me, I'd just say 'uh huh, uh huh.' It all sounded like low mumbling." she smiles. "I didn't know what the hell they were saying."

The actress has fond memories of her most famous ensemble acting, in "thirtysomething." "Except for my hair," she says, confessing to slight mortification when she encounters the show in reruns. "I think if you just have straight hair, you're in better shape all along for your career -- you always look nice and glossy, no humiliation. My second year on the show some of the worst hair ever. Third year, pretty bad, too; I kept saying, 'Wow, this is my glamorous year. Look at this wild mane I have.' But I look back at it now, like, 'What on Earth were we thinking?'"

Alas, for the show's "intellectual" fans ("they'd come up to me after a show had aired and say, so politely, 'I loved how you moved your hand in that scene last night'), there will not be a "fortysomething," an idea suggested, and nixed, at a recent reunion of cast and crew. "That would be like pulling 10-year-old clothes out of the closet and trying to get them to fit again," she says.

Besides Trudy Blue, this fortysomething has a play of her own, about getting into heaven, that she'd like to realize in Manhattan. "The process for writing is fun for me, like being able to act out a bunch of roles I could never be cast in."

Before heading off to McDonald's for a quick lunch before rehearsals began, Draper recalled her parents' reaction to a role she did eventually get, in Closer. Mindful of the diplomatic furor touched off by her last appearance in a sexually explicit piece, she made sure they knew what they were in for this time.

"And when they saw it, they tried to be nice," she says, with a long, low laugh.

--Robert Cashill