Maeve Kinney, 12, sits in a cozy alcove in O'Neals' restaurant across from Lincoln Center between two grown gentlemen, leafing through a magazine with studied indifference as Dad does his interview. The perfect-young-lady pose is so perfect, in fact, you suspect — correctly — she hopes to follow her folks (Kathryn Erbe and Terry Kinney) into the family business of acting. But first — like, after the interview — she hopes to catch a matinee showing of "Definitely, Maybe" nearby. It stars another 12-year-old, Abigail Breslin, so she may see it as a training film, but Dad has parentally pre-tested it and knows it has life lessons afoot.
You can't start 'em too soon in this business. When Terry Kinney was eight years older than his daughter is now, he was a founding father of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, along with two other talented twentysomethings, Gary Sinise and Jeff Perry.
The troupe has been a beacon of theatrical life and light in the Midwest for three decades and has, on several occasions, shined on Broadway — from its 1990 Tony winner (Frank Galati-via-John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath) to its 2008 Pulitzer winner (Tracy Letts' August: Osage County). Okies seem to be a specialty at Steppenwolf.
Kinney has been in the front lines for most of these Broadway expeditions. He was the doomed, defrocked and, generally, demented Jim Casy among the Joads who climbed out of the Dust Bowl and went West. His last stage acting was the lead in the 1996 Broadway revival of Sam Shepard's Buried Child. When he next returned to Broadway, it was backstage as director, refereeing Sinise's McMurphy and Amy Morton's Nurse Ratched in Steppenwolf's 2001 revival of Dale Wasserman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Somewhere along Life's Freeway, directing overtook acting on his priority list. In the past dozen years he has acted only in films and television, but that's still a pretty full plate, and of late it has put his directing on hold. He last staged the Steppenwolf premiere of Richard Greenberg's The Well-Appointed Room three years ago; it never got to New York.
But director Kinney rides again for reasons to be pretty, an MCC Theater opus (opening June 2, after previews) at the Lucille Lortel. Alison Pill, Thomas Sadoski, Piper Perabo and Pablo Schreiber are couples in crisscrossing conflicts.
The title is oddly amusing until you learn the author is Neil LaBute, who never wears gloves in his man–woman warfare; then it suddenly seems mean-spirited and ugly. "When I first got the script," Kinney recalls, "it had a different title — The Way We Get By, I think.
"Neil has asked me to direct his plays before, and I always had something else going on, but I've been eager to work with him. I personally admired him. He's the antithesis of his plays — a shy man, reticent to impart too much information. He's also incredibly collegial and trusting. He's got 'the theatre bug' and is really interested in theatre, but then I guess anyone who's interested in real acting and real actors is going to be interested in theatre."
As usual, LaBute packs his domestic dynamite in a small package — an offhand remark that rips a fatal hole in a relationship. "The basic plot is simple," says Kinney. "It's the peeling away of the layers and the outbranching of the initial event that is the true play.
"A couple is breaking up over a perceived or real comment about her face. She overhears that he doesn't like her face very much. From there on, it becomes a study of what we find beautiful in this country — who we are, what our aesthetics are, all of those LaButisms.
"He's sorta toppling all of this mythology that makes people wonder whether he's imbued with misogyny himself or has a cruel streak. I think he answers those questions this time."
LaBute's reasons to be pretty follows Fat Pig and The Shape of Things in a trilogy of emotional train-wrecks that he pegged to physical appearances. "I love all of his plays," Kinney admits. "What I love most about 'em is there's always a basic inciting incident. Someone does something, and everyone else reacts. Then, lives start unraveling because of it. That's what realistic theatre does — takes something we deal with every day and lets it create an earthquake in the community of the play till, ultimately, everyone is changed by it. It's this transformation that reminds us of our lives and informs us of our inflictions."
Kinney can't wait to start stirring the cauldron. "I have a reputation for being a tough director because I tend to push actors beyond their comfortable zones, but I also find most actors want to be pushed past their comfortable zones. They beg for it. They want to excel. Why else would they be there except to try to be better than they've been before?"
Lately, even he has been thinking of reenlisting in that fraternity. "I'd like to start up my acting again," he confesses. "It would be great, I think, to get back on a stage once more."
First, however, the director in him will make one more revolution. On July 20, IFC Films will release his feature-directing debut, "Diminished Capacity." Matthew Broderick and Alan Alda star in a kind of "Travels With My Uncle" road-trip comedy with serious underpinnings. In support are mostly stage recruits: Dylan Baker, Lois Smith, Bobby Cannavale, Virginia Madsen, Jim True-Frost, Jeff Perry. "I didn't have a casting director so I just went to my friends and the people I'm a fan of — these are my favorite actors."