There have always, it seems, been Kristine Nielsen parts in the theatre. Last year the seasoned comic actress with the strawberry tresses, wild eyes, windmilling arms and a way with a loopy line reading, played the comically distraught sister to David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver in Christopher Durang's acclaimed comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. It was, arguably, the most visible stage showcase of the actress' nearly three-decade career, and it won her a Tony nomination, her first.
Her Broadway follow-up is the current revival of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's 1936 comedy You Can't Take It With You. She plays Penny Sycamore, who, as matriarch of a more-than-usually eccentric household, benignly oversees the goings-on (snake-keeping, fireworks manufacturing, etc.) of her extended family (no one seems to have ever left the nest), while passing the time painting (badly) and playwriting (ditto).
It's not an un-Durangy role, and it's not the first time Nielsen has played it, but she couldn't pass up a second chance at the play — particularly when she heard who her co-stars would be.
"To have him play my father is a privilege," she says of James Earl Jones, who plays Martin Vanderhof, patriarch of the bohemian clan and Penny's father. "I'll seize that. I'm a theatre creature. He's of an era that you don't want to be disconnected from."
Also in the cast is Mark Linn-Baker, an old college classmate of Nielsen's. "We've known each other longer than the young people in the show have been alive," quips Linn-Baker. Appropriate, for such old friends, they play husband and wife. The starry ensemble also includes Elizabeth Ashley, Julie Halston, Reg Rogers, Annaleigh Ashford and "Bridesmaids" star Rose Byrne, making her Broadway debut.
The action takes place in New York, a town Nielsen knows well. "I was raised there. My mother worked for President Carter." Her father was a U.S. Navy captain and her ancestors fought in the Civil War and World War I.
"This play is about collectivism. It is 'take care of each other.' My hope for this play is that a younger generation should come and be reacquainted with it in a really good production."
Nielsen's recent spate of success has not dented her considerable work ethic; her Broadway and Off-Broadway credits alone run into the dozens. She still thinks of herself as a workaday actor, always moving from job to job.
"I feel I have to always scratch and grab for whatever I can," she says. "This world is like that. Yes, I feel a broader pool of people may know me. But I also say to any young actor: You've got to go out and pursue what you want to do. I pursued this." Said like a Sycamore.