Janeane Garofalo takes a tart, tangy sip of her Red Bull — the Large Economy Size, it looks like, but she says no: "There is a 20-ouncer. I've already had one today. This is my second one so that's why I'm down to 16 ounces." Now, if only she can wrap up this pre-show interview in time for a fast smoke, it’ll be Showtime!
The show in question is not the liberal-slanted standup she's been slinging around comedy clubs since 1985 but rather a fascinating first-play by Erika Sheffer called Russian Transport, which has just been extended till March 24 at the Acorn on Theatre Row. It has transported her to a place she has never been before — onto a stage in a play — not a second too soon, it being her 20th year as a practicing actress.
Since she stepped from a steady diet of standup into this more flexible field, she has done one of everything else, bumping around like a pinball from TV series regular ("The Ben Stiller Show," "Saturday Night Live, "The West Wing") to radio co-host (Air America's "The Majority Report") to mainstream movie leads ("The Truth About Cats & Dogs," "The MatchMaker") to Emmy-nominated episodic TV ("The Larry Sanders Show") to voices for features and television ("Ratatouille," The Simpsons").
Through all that, theatre somehow eluded her — and still would, if she had her way. Fortunately, Scott Elliott, artistic director of The New Group, saw the stage critter that was trying to get out and more or less dragooned her into Russian Transport, which he was casting and directing. Far from a liability, he saw her past as fortifying the actress within. "That's the whole thing about her," Elliott insists. "Her standup has made her fearless. She just jumps in and rips it apart. That's what I wanted." She certainly rules the roost in Russian Transport as Diana — Diana the Fortress, you could call her — the tough backbone of a middle-class Russian-Jewish immigrant family in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, handily dominating her husband Misha (Daniel Oreskes) and their assimilated teenagers, Alex (Raviv Ullman) and Mira (Sarah Steele). She herself opens the door to one person who challenges her authority, her brother from the old country, Boris (Morgan Spector), who soon casts a sinister shadow over the clan. Sheffer's play is the home-front tussle that follows.
"I still don't know how this happened," Garofalo admits, shaking her head in blissful disbelief. "Scott had my agent send me the script. I thought it was a mistake. I asked my agent, 'Did you mean to send me a play?' He said, 'Yeah. Look at the part of Diana.' I said, 'The Russian immigrant mom who speaks Russian and with an accent?' I loved the play, but I thought, 'I can't do this. I'm not of the caliber as the rest of the cast. I can't be in The New Group. That's the real deal there.' So I passed. Then Scott said, 'Just meet me for coffee anyway.' By the end of coffee, I was doing it.
"Scott is easily the best director I've ever worked with, what I always wished a director would be like. He just says the perfect thing. He also makes you feel, 'Oh, you can do it.' When I met him for coffee to tell him I wasn't going to do it, he just said, 'No, you're doing it. You can do it. No, you'll be fine. It'll be great.' I asked him, 'Well, what makes you think I can do it?' He just said, 'I dunno. You're doing it.' It was just one of those things, and he makes you feel through the whole process 'You got this.' Whether you do or not, he makes you feel this is within your ability."
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Compatibility comes in the casting, Elliott contends, and his proof is the familial togetherness that this company effortlessly exudes. "Sometimes, you get the chemistry, and it just keeps going," he says, explaining the unexplainable.
The friendliness is quite mutual and authentic, says Garofalo. "This is wonderful. I'm so thrilled the play was extended. If it's extended again, I'd be happy. And, if I got to work with Scott Elliott and these people always, from now on, that would be terrific.
"Luckily, we get along well — right from Day One — and hang around together. Morgan and Sarah and Raviv all take the train home downtown together. Sometimes, we just do stuff afterwards. Dan has a kid so he can't go out too much, but the rest of us hang around socially. The playwright's nice, the crew's easy. There's not one bad apple."
However, there was one bad Saturday matinee when she put too much spin on the fastballs to her young'uns. "I sucked," she shuddered. "I don't know what was wrong. The audience wasn't going for it, and I was undone by that. Some of the older people at the matinee didn't like the jokey way I talk to my kids, which I certainly understand. I myself find it harsh. It's quite unappealing. And I became ashamed — me, Janeane — which is not what I'm supposed to be doing. Janeane became ashamed of the language she was using as Diana. That's not supposed to happen, and I've got to get control of that. You have to stand in there, and you have to respect the text.
"I actually don't have any judgment on Diana. I know that others in the audience don't like her, but the way I see it is, 'How can you judge someone who grew up in difficult circumstances in pre-Perestroika Russia, poor, with an absentee father?' "A lot of people who grew up in America cannot understand what it was like living there at that time and what it was like for Erika's parents and grandparents, whom this is loosely based on. She has stories about what it was like for them struggling."
So here she is, a longtime denizen of the West Village getting around to her Off-Broadway debut after two decades. Hers was never a straight line. Born and raised in New Jersey, she went to high school in Katy, TX, and college in Providence, RI. While majoring in history at the latter, she won a Showtime-sponsored talent search for the "Funniest Person in Rhode Island" and proceeded to make her own history.
While the actress is on call, the comedienne is on hold. "I still do standup. I'm just not doing it during this run. I've never stopped doing standup. That's my first love. In high school, I made the decision that's what I want to be. It was not my intention to be an actor. It was my intention to be George Carlin. I never achieved that level, but I wanted to affect people the way he did and stay relevant for so many years.
"I think what I like best about doing standup comedy is that I control it. I write it. I can say what I want. On any given night, I can wear whatever I want as long as I wear make-up. Nobody cares if I'm fat or thin or anything. It's always new because I don't repeat myself. I may do some of the same material, but I don't have to. I can open and close different whereas in other mediums you must say what's written."
Stage-acting, she feels, is a true test of discipline for someone who is used to flying by the seat of their pants "in that you've got to say this here and you must put that prop there. You must turn the light on right now. That gets me because of my immature response to authority. I perceive it as an authority figure telling me, even though it's not. That's just how immature I am."
But she is mature enough to recognize when a new door of opportunity has opened to her, and she's gung-ho for going for more of the same. "If someone will have me, I'd consider it, but it's not up to me, and it's case-by-case. As with any medium, there are good plays and there are bad plays. I don't want to do just any play, just for the sake of doing a play. I'd like to do something that I feel like I could contribute something to. Hopefully, others will be interested in having me do that."