Going back to Drama Desk Award-nominated turns in offbeat, Off-Broadway productions like Jeffrey and Bella, Belle of Byelorussia in the early 1990s, Harris has displayed dependable coming timing, welding to a sort of goofy, borderline lunatic charm. Her skills were most noticeably rewarded when she played the nefarious frustrated-actress-turned-white-slaver Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie, a part that won her a Tony Award. She is currently back on Broadway playing the dependable, wise-cracking secretary Monica Reed to Victor Garber's vain actor Garry Essendine in Present Laughter. Harris talked to Playbill.com about the key to pulling off Noel Coward, and her many, many favorite roles.
Playbill.com: Is this the first Noel Coward play you have ever done?
Harriet Harris: No, years and years ago, I did Hay Fever with a friend and she got a lot of old friends of hers to come up and do the adults. And it was really really fun. That was the first experience I had with Coward and it was really interesting to see just how difficult the material really is. It seems very simple. It seems effortless when you give it a read. And then performing it is hard.
Playbill.com: What is the key to bringing it off?
HH: Oh, I don't know. (Laughs)
Playbill.com: Well, you must know something. The critics seem to think you and the cast are doing it well.
HH: Well, to me I think the punctuation is so crucial. You look at a lot of modern plays and there's hardly any punctuation. There are so few exclamation points. And there are so few pauses that are actually written in.
Playbill.com: These days, they tell playwrights not to put in too many pauses, and to let the actor figure out when to pause.
HH: Well, that's lovely. But I think the actors are going to put in way too many pauses. They just are. Because you get tired and you lose track and you pause for effect when you really should be acting and continuing to think through. It's a funny thing, I think, that actors pause as much as they do, because if you see a politician pause you think, "Uh-oh." With actors, they'll take a pause and somehow they think the audience isn't going, "Oh, they just lost my interest." Playbill.com: Did Coward write a lot of pauses into Present Laughter?
HH: There are very few. That's a big indicator that you're supposed to be thinking very fast, moving it along. These people are used to being with one another and to some extent they read each other's minds, and the delight comes when they can't quite know what the other person is going to say or do. I'd say that's a big thing. And also just showing up and trying to have fun. It's hard to do a comedy if you don't enjoy it.
Playbill.com: I know the play is set in a different era, but do you think there are still actors around who are like Garry Essendine?
HH: (Laughs) You have to ask Victor [Garber]. Because Victor says he's very comfortable in the part. I think he's being funny and modest when he says that. I'm sure there are. I don't know many actors that have the latitude that Garry Essendine has. Noel Coward passes any theatre genius that I hang out with in that he can do so many things and do them incredibly well. But most of them are actors. They're not also painters and playwrights and musicians. Nobody exists like Noel Coward. But there are probably a lot of Garry Essendines out there.
Playbill.com: You've done a good many plays by now. What would you count as your favorite part?
HH: (Laughs) I think it may have been a Tartuffe that I got to do at the Guthrie [in 1984]. And a Glass Menagerie that I also got to do at the Guthrie recently. Tartuffe was one of the first big roles I got to do. I also got to work with director Lucian Pintilie, who had a completely different way of looking at things than I had encountered before. I played Elmire. I wasn't Dorine, the funny servant. At that point, I was actually a leading lady. I also got to do a wonderful Midsummer Night's Dream there. I loved doing Thoroughly Modern Millie so much. That was a wonderful opportunity. I really pinch myself when I get into a musical, because I dreamed of it as a little girl. And I loved The Man Who Came to Dinner; I adore working with Nathan [Lane]. I got to do Noises Off this past summer, and I loved that. Oh, I'm going to hang up and say, "Oh, I should have said that was my favorite show!"
Playbill.com: Well, you just listed about a half dozen things, so you probably covered a good amount.
HH: (Laughs) Really pretty much everything I've ever done I've pretty much learned from it and enjoyed it immensely.