Girl On Top

By Christopher Wallenberg
06 May 2008

Photo by Corey Hayes

Former teen movie misfit Martha Plimpton is now one of the Top Girls of the Broadway stage.

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If Martha Plimpton had observed the usual Former Child Actor trajectory of career downward spiral followed by personal meltdown, she'd likely be on her third stint in rehab or grasping for a comeback on a trashy cable reality show.

Instead, Plimpton, who made her name playing quirkily precocious misfits in 1980s touchstones like "The Goonies" and "Parenthood," has morphed into one of the most electrifying actresses on the New York stage. In recent years she has delivered a string of head-turning performances, from the spurned girlfriend of a closeted former priest in Conor McPherson's Shining City to the emotionally entangled wife-turned-mistress in Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia trilogy to Imogen, the lovelorn heroine of Shakespeare's Cymbeline.

This month Plimpton is tackling twin roles in the Broadway bow of Top Girls, British playwright Caryl Churchill's 1982 ground-shaker, alongside a slew of other top-notch actresses, including Oscar winner Marisa Tomei and downtown-theatre queen bee Elizabeth Marvel.



With her striking features and signature blonde pixie hairstyle, Plimpton was a magnetic, gamine presence during a recent interview thanks to a firecracker wit, cut-to-the-chase candidness and infectious laugh.

Martha Plimpton with Josh Hamilton in The Coast of Utopia.
photo by Paul Kolnik
Despite Plimpton's white-hot status among theatre fans, she still admits to an irrational fear of career implosion, of all the plum roles drying up, of being thrown out on the streets to live "in a cardboard box by the train tracks," as she puts it. Indeed, her Coast of Utopia director, Jack O'Brien, recalls that Plimpton would often blurt out during rehearsal that she was sure he was going to fire her at any moment. "Actors are always paranoid that at any second it's all going to come caving in," Plimpton says over a glass of wine and spring rolls in a midtown restaurant.

"Besides, Plimpton knows that naysayers always lurk right around the corner, particularly in an age when the internet is bursting with amateur critics spewing all kinds of vapid, venomous claptrap." "For every person who has something positive to say, there is probably an equal number of people who are like, 'When's that girl going to go away? We're sick of her already!' Or they're going to make some comment about my chin, or some blogger's going to say something rude about my armpits," she cracks with a self-deprecating laugh. "It's just inevitable! So I hope any attention I'm getting now is really just a blip on what will be a continuum of a career."

Said continuum began before Plimpton was even born. As the daughter of actors Keith Carradine and Shelley Plimpton, who met in the original 1969 production of Hair, little Martha was bouncing around in her mother's womb while Shelley was stalking the stage of the Biltmore Theatre. Martha returned to the Biltmore, fully grown, for 2006's Shining City and now treads those boards again in Top Girls.

After making her professional debut at the age of nine in the Public Theater's The Haggadah, Plimpton knew what she wanted to do. "Like all actors, I have a pathological need for attention," she jokes. Long before Ellen Page came along, she perfected the art of playing sharp-witted teenage outsiders in films like "Parenthood," "The Mosquito Coast" and "Running on Empty," that last two opposite her onetime-boyfriend River Phoenix. In the '90s she morphed into an indie film fave in movies like "Beautiful Girls," "Eye of God" and "200 Cigarettes." But she got stuck in a rut of playing the "wisecracking best friend," so she instead chose to focus on theatre.

She credits her years acting with Chicago's legendary Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where she became a member in 1998, for helping to hone her craft. Since then, she's proven to be one of the hottest actresses on the New York stage, culminating with her two-character turn last year in The Coast of Utopia, for which she was nominated for a Tony and nabbed Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards. O'Brien credits Plimpton and her longtime friend Ethan Hawke with anchoring the production. "They were its pistons and its battery pack," O'Brien says. "Martha's got that marvelously electric streak running down the middle of her talent. And she's in her ascendancy now. She's got new colors, new range. But she's not lost any of her spark or any of her edge."

Her range will certainly be tested in Top Girls, a play that illuminates the difficult choices women have been confronted with throughout history and the price that's been paid for those sacrifices. The drama begins with a dinner party, thrown by the ambitious Marlene to celebrate her promotion and attended by a clutch of fascinating women from history and legend. Plimpton portrays the possibly mythical Pope Joan, who disguised herself as a man and became the only woman ever to sit on the papal throne. Later, she plays Angie, the teenage daughter Marlene gave up years earlier.

While Plimpton declines to say how she's approaching the dual roles, she does reveal that she has a more sanguine outlook on her work than she used to. "I'm a lot less embarrassed by my failures. In an odd way, I seem to be having such a good time with all these characters because I'm not so fearful. That's a hurdle all people need to get through in their lives. It's just part of your development as a person. You learn how to believe in yourself more and trust yourself more in the thing you've chosen to do. And with skill comes confidence, and with confidence comes the ability to make fun of yourself and to take more pleasure in what you're doing and not take everything quite so seriously."