When a tough guy says it's a tough play, you'd better believe it.
The tough guy is Sally Solomon, that ultra-masculine alien inside a woman's body whose mission, when he/she drops in on earth in TV's "3rd Rock from the Sun," is to find out what makes a human earth woman tick.
The play is Baby Anger, a black-white-red-blue-purple comedy the colors of a bruise at Playwrights Horizons, on 42nd Street's Theatre Row.
"A really tough play, I think one of the toughest I've ever done," said Kristen Johnston, the Sally Solomon in question, who at the moment in high contrast is sad-sack mama Mary Kay Paterson of Baby Anger, co-parent with John Pankow of a kid they've really screwed up by letting him, as an infant, be used in a TV commercial seen around the world.
Little Shawn, a baby boy dressed as a girl, in a pink bonnet. If you want a good, strong cross-gender parallel. Kristen Johnston had been two years away from the stage, two years before the "3rd Rock" cameras "Not being a sitcom fan, I have to say it's one of the better ones" when she called Raelle Koota, her New York manager, with the plea of: "I have to do a play."
"What would make you happy?" Ms. Koota asked and added that an Off-Broadway production of Baby Anger, a play by Peter Hedges, Kristen Johnston's old friend and collaborator from the Atlantic Theater Company in the mid-eighties, was in the works.
"Actually I knew the play," the blonde, green-eyed, six-foot actress says. "I'd been part of a reading of it five years ago in somebody's apartment. A completely unfinished work then, but I thought it was wonderful.
"Now I didn't quite think I was right for it. Such a different role. Mary Kay is a woman who makes a bunch of really wrong choices. Sally in '3rd Rock' is forgive my French such a ball buster. But Peter just jumped on the idea, and next thing I knew, it was a go."
Mary Kay's theatrical alter ego has no children, in or out of TV commercials. "I'm 29 years old and I have a boyfriend, and that's as personal as I care to go. And two dogs, Pablo and Lulu."
Born in Washington, D.C., raised in Milwaukee, educated at N.Y.U. on Washington Square, this daughter of a realtor who was once a Republican state senator says she has been acting "pretty much since I could form sentences."
As a nominee for SAG and Golden Globe awards, she's been nosed out a couple of times by "that damn" Christine Baranski, whom she adores. "Losing to her is like winning."
Kristen Johnston's last appearance on the New York stage was as Rose in The Lights at Lincoln Center "a bitter, drunken, really sick character."
So: does Baby Anger make you happy?
"Well, performing in it makes me happy. To have been away for two years, and come back to work with this and these people I'm very impressed."
Welcome to our planet.
-- By Jerry Tallmer