PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Mary Catherine Garrison

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Mary Catherine Garrison Actress Mary Catherine Garrison is currently inhabiting her favorite world: the 1930s.
Mary Catherine Garrison
Mary Catherine Garrison

The actress, who has previously starred in such Depression-era plays as The Man Who Came to Dinner and Street Scene, is now essaying her biggest Broadway role to date, playing opposite David Hyde Pierce in Samson Raphaelson's sophisticated light comedy Accent on Youth, for Manhattan Theatre Club. In the play, she portrays Linda Brown, a mousy secretary who, through three years of exposure to her boss, successful and worldly playwright Steven Gaye, is transformed into a stage star and object of male desires. That's fine by the petite, New Orleans native, whose credits also include Rabbit Hole and recent Broadway revivals of Assassins and Top Girls. The 1930s is her favorite time period, in film, in fashion and in music. Garrison talked to Playbill.com about her time-traveling career.

Playbill.com: You've done a few plays that are, like Accent on Youth, set in the 1930s. Is it difficult to get into that world, to turn yourself into a person who lived back then?
Mary Catherine Garrison: I wouldn't say it's incredibly difficult, in that it's a human story of a human being, and those don't vary that much from time to time. You have to consider the political events of the time, what people may or may not know socially at that point, and what's risqué at that time is always sort of different. The envelopes we're pushing in this play were scandalous at the time. Aside from that, no. For me, it's really about the story and the person, and the emotion involved with this.

Playbill.com: Do you think there is something about you, physically, vocally or temperamentally, that fits well in the '30s?
MCG: I hope so, because personally I'm obsessed with it. In fact, I've been watching 1920s silent movies all day today. I actually own a lot. And Turner Classic Movies is my favorite channel. I was watching this whole Harold Lloyd festival. They were doing movie after movie of his. So wonderful! I just bought the "Thin Man" collection. It's not just this play. It's my favorite period of fashion and music. That's the music I listen to.

Playbill.com: It's interesting that you should mention Harold Lloyd. When Accent on Youth debuted on Broadway in 1934, your part, Linda Brown, was played by Constance Cummings, and one of her most famous movies was the silent Harold Lloyd film "Movie Crazy." Did you see that film today?
MCG: I don't think so. I don't know what she looks like and I'm really curious. Do you know who played my part in London? It was Greer Garson.

Playbill.com: She must have been really young at the time. Is this the biggest role you've had on Broadway in terms of lines? It's basically the female lead.
MCG: Indeed. It absolutely is. I've never been so tired in my life. I worked with [director] Daniel Sullivan before in Rabbit Hole. I think he's so good at his job. I trust him implicitly. He has the most discerning eye I've ever seen. I guess he had wanted to do the play for a while. He couldn't quite find the right person to play Steven Gaye. When David Hyde Pierce became available, they put together a reading, and I read. And funnily enough, when they sent me the script, I thought they had made a mistake. I thought that they meant for me to read a different part. I have no idea what or why I got the part, but I'm a very grateful girl.

David Hyde Pierce and Mary Catherine Garrison
photo by Joan Marcus

Playbill.com: What's your take on the character? Do she and Gaye really care about each other, really love each other? They're constantly living in this half-real-life, half-theatre world, playacting a lot of the time.
MCG: I think what's important is the way that it started. She was a very innocent, very inexperienced person with no family, no real connections, who, via her experience with Steven Gay was introduced to new ways of thinking, new kinds of people, new ideas — this entire world she was unaware of before. So in a way, he was her conduit. Because of him, she was able to experience things that helped her discover who she was a person and ultimately grow up. There's some sort of love between them. Playbill.com: It's a very glamorous theatre world that's depicted in this play, full of fine clothes, good manners and butlers. Do you ever look around at your own present-day world, then read the lines and think, "What kind of theatre world is this?"
MCG: Yeah, [Steven Gaye lives] in an eight-room apartment with a view of the river. No playwright I know has that, I don't think. I feel like that world did exist, and I think that's why I'm so responsive to movies and anything from this period. New York used to be different. New York wasn't a really wealthy island. People could come here from everywhere and struggle together. It's a different kind of New York now.

Playbill.com: It certainly is. Are you from around here?
MCG: No, I'm from New Orleans. My family's from Mississippi, but the longest we ever lived anywhere was in New Orleans. My dad's relatives came over on the boat from France and Spain.

Playbill.com: Ah, so you have French and Spanish blood as well as Irish.
MCG: I do.

Playbill.com: I'm assuming the Irish.
MCG: You're assuming right.

Playbill.com: You have a kind of unmistakably Irish name. Are you the only person in your family who's in the arts?
MCG: Oh, yes. They have no idea where I came from.

Playbill.com: You were in Top Girls at Manhattan Theatre Club last. That must have been an experience.
MCG: It was a difficult experience, especially when you compare it to a play like this. It's funny, because Top Girls, that play means a lot, if you're a female and you ever took a theatre class in your life, you probably did a scene from Top Girls, if not the actual play. Of course, I did, too. It was really interesting, because we spent time with Caryl Churchill. She doesn't remember a lot of why she wrote it, unfortunately. So the big questions we had, she had the same questions. It was a difficult play to act. The first scene is sort of cut-and-paste and it was hard to keep the throughline on that. But I also knew you had to just let go and do it. Also, I got to do the little girl, Kit, which was absolutely one of the favorite characters I've played in my whole life. I just thought she was a neat little kid and was going to be something special some day.

Playbill.com: I guess it must be easier, in a way, to do Accent on Youth, because nobody's going to come in with expectations, as very few people know this play.
MCG: Exactly. But everyone I've talked to thinks it's going to be a certain kind of play. If you know it's written in the '30s, you think it's going to be this certain kind of farcical play about theatre. But where it takes you is surprising, in terms of plots. We did the reading and I thought, "Yeah, yeah, I get this play." Then working on it I have pulled out giant chunks of my hair.

Mary Catherine Garrison and David Hyde Pierce
Mary Catherine Garrison and David Hyde Pierce
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