"I would walk across fire to work with her again," Mark Brokaw once rashly remarked about the actress he had steered to Obie and Lortel awards for How I Learned to Drive.
"Onstage, Mary-Louise is one of those performers who gives off light. She's totally captivating and compelling. And the reason for that is she never stops working. It's not surprising to me she doesn't divulge much about herself, because it's all about the work."
Happily, fate (in the form of Manhattan Theatre Club) has spared Brokaw the hot foot, reuniting the director with his incandescent Mary-Louise Parker in a Broadway revival of Craig Lucas' edgy antic Reckless, which bows Oct. 14 at the Biltmore Theatre.
Parker's special lit-from-within qualities should go a long way toward illuminating the murky corners of this quirky comedy about a mousy housewife who learns her hubby has hired — for Christmas, yet(!) — a hit man to kill her, sending her out the nearest window and off on a cross-country jag that is cluttered with an assortment of eccentric characters. "People tend to bill this as a comedy — and it is funny — but it's so dark you can't really classify it," Parker says. "It sorta defies genre. All of Craig's plays are like that, really."
"This character in particular, Rachel, is so wonderful because her journey is sweet. She begins the play with absolutely nothing but her nightgown left — it's almost as if she were born at the beginning of the play, com-pletely new — and, by the end of it, she has grown and evolved. It's a complete journey, and there's such humor and humanity in it."
Then again, she admits that she has an affection and affinity for all the Lucas characters she has played. "Every time that I have done anything of his I've felt so lucky because Craig really writes the way people speak. He's like a modern Chekhov in that respect."
Author and actress first crossed paths in 1989 when she auditioned for what became her arrival role — Rita in Prelude to a Kiss, which tried out at South Coast Rep and Berkeley Rep before opening at Circle Rep and moving on to Broadway's Helen Hayes.
Even then, Lucas didn't allow the course of true love to run smoothly for Parker: She played a young woman whose body is entered by an old soul — an old man's soul — and she did it with a warmth that screamed A Star Is Born. The performance won her a Theatre World Award and the Clarence Derwent Award — if not, alas, the movie role.
The late Norman René, who directed Prelude, came up with a couple of cinematic consolation prizes, both scripted by Lucas: the moving “Longtime Companion,” in which she was the friend of a group of gay men at the advent of AIDS, and the film version of Reckless, in which she played a paraplegic deaf mute to Mia Farrow's heroine.
The idea of upgrading herself to the Reckless lead came from her, she says — by way of some badgering from friends. "Oskar Eustis, artistic director of Trinity Rep, and Ben Shenkman's girlfriend both cornered me and said, 'You have to promise us you'll do it.' I was thinking about it, but I wasn't sure. So I called Craig and asked him did he think I could do it — he said yes — and then I called Mia and asked if she minded. If she had, I wouldn't have done it, but she was lovely. She said, 'Do it. We'll keep it in the family.'"
The Reckless notion represents an actress acting her age. It bothers her not a whit that Gwyneth Paltrow filmed the Proof part for which Parker earned all the major acting awards in 2001 (the Tony Award, the Drama League Award, the Drama Desk Award, the Obie and the Lortel).
"So much has gone on I feel like it's someone else's experience now," she says. "It's still so amazing to me it was as successful as it was. I was just planning to do this little play Off-Broadway. No one thought it would move, much less to Broadway, but that's the way it is when you do any play. You don't know if it's going to work or if people will like it."
But there is still a lingering sting about missing out on the movie version of Prelude to a Kiss. Parker professes not to know who wound up with the part (it was Meg Ryan — in an award-losing performance). "I don't want to talk about the movie."
Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, like David Auburn's Proof, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play — proof, in effect, that Parker picks her stage vehicles with care. "How I Learned to Drive was the most intense experience I've ever had in a play. There was no intermission, which I absolutely loved. It was like going down a black hill on a ski boat. You couldn't just decide, halfway down, you wanted to go back. You had to go with it."
Her most recent brush with a Pulitzer Prize play was in Mike Nichols's HBO movie version of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. She played Harper Pitt, the Valium-popping wife of a closeted gay Manhattan attorney, and the torment of that situation paid off in a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy Award. She was also up for an Emmy last year for her performance of an ambitious lobbyist on "The West Wing."
It's no Reckless assumption the lady may well wind up with every major acting bauble going.