In "The Way We Were," Robert Redford was an incipient screenwriter whose literary cred showed in the first line of a short story he reads in creative-writing class: "Like his country, things had come too easily to him." The line wears well on Redford, who always looks as if he has an Express Pass in life — and it's super-true of Diane Lane.
But the actress, looking spic and span and spiffy at 50, would give you an argument on that. "She will be punished," she laughs. "Don't worry, she'll get a good flogging."
Nevertheless, the statistical fact remains that she makes one helluva entrance: She started on stage with Meryl Streep (The Cherry Orchard) and on screen with Laurence Olivier ("A Little Romance"). Could it possibly get better than that?
Even she is a bit stunned by this news. "I never thought of it that way before," she confesses in lingering amazement. "Wow! You're really packaging me up great!" At any age — in fact, defying age — Lane is the perennial poster girl, making the cover of Time magazine at the age of 14 and literally blossoming before the cameras. She placed No. 79 on VH1's list of 100 greatest kid stars and, over 36 years, racked up 57 screen credits. She left the New York stage a waif — with three Broadway credits, all in '77 (The Cherry Orchard, Agamemnon and a reprise of The Cherry Orchard) — and is only now coming back as the mother of a college girl in The Mystery of Love & Sex.
"It's nice to be home," she sighs, sliding into a booth at The Smith across from Lincoln Center where the play will open Mar. 2 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. "My ego is stamped 'NYC Native,' so I had to come back. Isn't that what Tennessee Williams said? 'There's a certain act of your life where you have to come home and show everybody that you made good,' right? Anyway, that's what's going on here. Wherever you're from, you have to leave. I grew up here, and I had to leave here."
Reading up on her old hometown is grounding her. Case in point: E.B. White's "Here Is New York." "For me, it connects the unknown past to the unknown future of New York, as well as the unchanging [nature] of New York in terms of its energy and chaos."
Movies also help. "Didn't you just love 'Birdman'? I love the parallel of him in those wonderful old brick theatres and getting caught in the jet stream outside. It's such a great metaphor of New York. Don't get me started about that movie. I wanted to watch it a third time, but my friend said, 'You're going to New York to do a play. Maybe you don't want to watch it three times. There's already a level of insanity that is required for your job.' The stage is terrible for adrenaline junkies. I mean, you can jump out of a plane, but that still doesn't have the level of critique waiting for you."
Occasionally, a soft Southern drawl slips into her speech, but she catches herself and quickly apologizes for it. "That's the play talking. My character is Southern. Tony Shalhoub is my husband, a detective novelist, and we live in one of those typical Southern enclaves where all of these novelists have beautiful homes and write."
The conflict is triggered by their daughter's wedding announcement. "Have you ever heard the term 'trauma bond'? It's when people are bound together by having survived something that is so emotionally severe that you're never the same afterwards. You're altered forever — and united forever in that alteration. There was an historical event that happened with our young daughter, and there are a lot of wounds we got from that. It just bubbles up. We deal with race, we deal with gender, we deal with homophobia, we deal with ageism — not ism. There are no isms, okay, but there is an addressing of where are we at with each other within the family."
Producers have waved plays at her before, of course, to no avail, but this time "there was a confluence of things" — notably, director Sam Gold and playwright Bathsheba Doran — that caused her to rise to the bait. "I felt this upswing of energy, like they were accomplishing something significant, and I'd be honored to bring that to life."
Also, she liked the idea that the play was a from-the-ground-up original. "To take on something that has no history is like a newborn baby that deserves good swaddling. For me, this was What's Next, Pussycat? I just felt a sense of freedom in the writing — and I found, on a personal level, that it's declarative about being 50. "Look, we got to serve this up to the people. I understand that, but — for me, selfishly, like a mouse with a piece of cheese — I'm having a ball. This is delicious writing, and it's very — what's the word? Confrontational? — yeah, I guess that'll do, at least for my character; and for everybody else's, really. We just keep banging into each other."