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What Do You Say As You’re Dying? Kate Mulgrew and Kathleen Chalfant navigate a play’s remarkable language

By LAURA HEDLI

Welcome to Building Character, TDF's ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles.

Kate Mulgrew is lying on the floor, her upper body propped against a chair. She's rehearsing a death scene. Hers.

Instead of gravitas, though, her death is received with lively curiosity. Everyone in the rehearsal room, Mulgrew included, is debating four words in the script: "Dios Mio. Mrs. Armstrong." Or should the line be, "Mrs. Armstrong. Dios Mio?"

Playwright Jenny Schwartz trusts her ear, and she needs to hear actors speak her words to decide what she wants to say. At this particular rehearsal, she asks Mulgrew, as well as actresses Kathleen Chalfant and Maria Elena Ramirez, if they can run the scene twice so that she can hear the line both ways. Once she's made her choice, she asks them to run it a third time, just to be sure.

In Schwartz's play Somewhere Fun, which is now in previews at the Vineyard, dialogue happens in a staccato rhythm and monologues read like poetry. The story follows Rosemary Rappaport (Mulgrew) and Evelyn Armstrong (Chalfant), both in their 60s, estranged from each other and their thirtysomething children.

Chalfant calls the play "associative," and it's true. Nearly every line has a double meaning, and Schwartz has a knack for breathing life into clichés. Somewhere Fun explores grief and loss, and at the heart of it all, our inability to communicate with one another. Characters talk a lot, yet they grab at pop culture references or pat wisdom---anything to reach some sort of shared understanding.

Mulgrew explains that "so much of this play deals with memory, the lengths to which we go to avoid revealing our pain, and how it is among some women of a certain age that language is their shield, their mantle, their sword, their passport."

As an actor then, how do you perform something where words cost so much? For Mulgrew and Chalfant, it's all about precision and pacing.

Chatting in the rehearsal studio, Chalfant and Mulgrew complete each other's thoughts in a way that suggests the script. Unlike their characters, though, they are talking with each other, not at each other.

Chalfant says, "When it's something as particular as this, if what you're thinking is, 'I wonder what I'm going to do next' while speaking the words, then the thing that comes out is 'I'm wondering what I'm going to do next.' And that's what you play. You can't say the thing that you're meant to say.

Mulgrew pipes in, "It's diabolical that way. This piece is terrible that way."

"Terrible. You can't think ahead."

"If you dare to anticipate even one line, you can screw yourself up and take the whole scene down."

For Mulgrew, navigating Schwartz's script is like being an Olympic luger. "They've run the course a zillion times. But when the Olympic flag goes, they just have to get in it and take the ride. They can't be saying, 'By the way, at the next turn …' There's just no time for that. This does provoke a special kind of terror and trust. They kind of go hand in hand, and I've seldom had this feeling."

Both Mulgrew and Chalfant trust completely in Schwartz and are astounded that the playwright has managed to create real and full characters who are nearly twice her age. (Schwartz is not yet 40.) The two compare themselves to instruments, Schwartz's script a piece of music.

"I have a strange and mysterious kinship with Jenny's writing, and so I can fall into the rhythm with abandon and not feel afraid or lost. In fact, to the contrary, it feels quite natural to me," says Mulgrew. "It may well be that this is how my mother spoke, and in my memory, which is being jogged, I am re-presenting that. This allows me to embrace the character and everything she is feeling while speaking words that somehow reside in my blood."

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Laura Hedli is a reporter based in New York City.

Photo by Carol Rosegg