Maryann Plunkett’s husband Jay O. Sanders has another wife, and she could not be more thrilled. The real-life couple plays brother and sister-in-law in Richard Nelson’s new three-play cycle,The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family at the Public Theater. Despite Sanders’ character being married to someone else, the duo is living their dream as co-stars. They feel extremely lucky when they get to work side by side, whether sharing an electric first kiss on the set of the Spenser: For Hire spinoff in 1989, or playing in-laws. Hungry, the first of The Gabriels trilogy introduces audiences to the Gabriels and the struggles they endure over the course of an election year. Aside from a few minor details, the set feels like home for Sanders and Plunkett. The pair explains why working together works, even if they occasionally have to kiss other people.
This is the second Richard Nelson cycle that you’ve done together. The first was 2013’s The Apple Family Plays. Does working together in The Gabriels feel any different than when you performed together then?
Jay O. Sanders: Each play has it’s own challenges, but the two of us working together is the same thing as waking up in the morning, making breakfast and getting ready—we’ve been doing it now for so many years.
Maryann Plunkett: That’s how we met.
JS: It’s very comfortable. We’re both very confident in our own ways of working, and we don’t get in each other’s ways, but we are playful with each other. There’s a natural connection on stage—a natural communication that you have with somebody you know that well.
MP: And we’re very honored to be a part of what is sort of Richard Nelson’s “rep company,” doing magnificent plays for this period of time. We wake up in the morning and we go off to work together to explore these plays. It’s really fortunate that we both [were cast], because if one of us had not been in these plays, one of us would have been very jealous.
JS: And they’ve allowed us to travel. We did six weeks in Europe last spring [with The Apple Family Plays] and neither one of us was just a spouse coming along for the ride. We were both completely engaged and getting the experience, so we’re very lucky. We know it and we enjoy it. We never take it for granted.
MP: We, literally, say that often. We look at each other and laugh and say, “We are so lucky.”
It’s also lucky because it’s such a steady job. Does knowing that you’ll both be employed throughout this year make home life easier?
JS: We both tend to stay busy, but it’s nice knowing that you’re going to be busy like this in the same thing, and we have a break from the end of March until mid- August.
MP: [Which is when] our son is graduating from college, so it all worked out.
JS: We have time where we could be doing another project or two in between if something comes up, but there’s not the same concern about it. It does take the pressure off of things.
You’ve mentioned that you both have your own ways of working. How does that manifest in rehearsal?
JS: We met when we were in our mid-30s so we already had developed a style of working. We discovered that we’re very compatible, but it’s different than growing up and building all that together. If one of us wants help from the other, we ask for it, but otherwise we’re just working parallel in our own ways. It’s not a couple act; she doesn’t need me to be there to do what she does, and I don’t need her there. It’s just an added pleasure. You go out for lunch together, and make plans afterwards together.
MP: You get interviewed about being a couple….
JS: You’re the first one to interview us about this, but people—especially other married couples—ask us about this all the time. There’s some people who do fine with their spouses at home and in life, but they say, “Boy if I had to work with him or her that would drive me crazy,” but we’re very much the opposite. We relax with it.
The play’s action takes place in the kitchen while the cast is preparing a meal. Does it remind you of being at home at all?
MP: [The set] is a big house with a work table in the middle of the kitchen. It has the feel of an old house. We live in an apartment in New York City, so our kitchen is very different.
JS: But we hang around the kitchen and talk while we’re doing stuff at home. [In the play] it’s me and four women in the kitchen. It is interesting to be there will all the women talking, and with another woman who’s playing my wife. We’re coupled differently.
Is that weird for you to be on the same stage with your real-life wife while being married to another woman?
JS: No, it hasn’t been.
MP: We did a play once though where we both had kissing scenes with other people and that was a little weird. You just go, “Oh I don’t need to watch that scene. I’m going to go look at my lines,” or “I have to go to the bathroom right now.” It’s not disturbing or anything, I just don’t need to watch it.
JS: Both of us are used to going to unusual places for drama. There are a lot of actors who are married to people who aren’t actors and that’s stranger for their spouse, like “Wait, you’re kissing that guy every night?” You watch a lot of relationships where people struggle with that, but I think it helps that we both know what’s involved.
Definitely. What show was it that you guys met on?
JS: We met doing an episode of a short-lived TV series called A Man Called Hawk, which was a spin off of Spenser: For Hire. Our first kiss was on the show.
Really? Did it feel like a first kiss or did it feel like a job?
BOTH: It felt like a first kiss!
JS: Yeah it was pretty intense… We were realizing something that we wouldn’t give way to for another year-and-a-half or so. But, yeah, it is odd. You make yourself vulnerable. You engage romantically, even if it’s just for the half hour that you’re shooting something.
But if making connections is just part of the job, what was different about your first kiss?
MP: Well, the character I was playing was nine months pregnant, I was not pregnant, but my character was and it was his baby. I’m not sure if I ever told him this, but I remember sitting with him in between takes with my big pregnant pillow on, and, as he was talking, he had his hand on my fake pregnant pillow belly. He was talking and stroking my fake pregnant belly and it was so natural. He was this big guy and he was so tender.
JS: I was really tender.
MP: Or just really smart! He thought, “Look she’s pregnant. I know I’ll touch her belly,” but it worked! No, it was just the tenderness that really got me. He’s blushing!
JS: That’s our story.
MP: And look where we are now! We have a son who is graduating from college.