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The Tony winner goes on a dysfunctional family road trip in Amy and the Orphans
When director Scott Ellis calls Debra Monk, the actress listens. After all, he's directed her in numerous shows over the past three decades, including the Broadway musicals Steel Pier and Curtains, for which she earned Tony nominations. But this time around, he reached out about a play: Amy and the Orphans, Lindsey Ferrentino's heart-tugging road-trip drama about a pair of adult siblings (played by Monk and Mark Blum) reuniting with their younger sister Amy (American Horror Story's Jamie Brewer), who has Down syndrome.
"He'd been telling me about it for a while because he was really excited," Monk recalls. Then last summer, Ellis invited her to play the part of Maggie in a staged reading of the show at Vassar. "She's complicated and slightly crazy," Monk says of her character. "In the script, she's described as 'unspooled and unspooling,' and I thought, that alone is a great thing for an actor to have! I love that she's so self-absorbed and neurotic, and yet there is a real longing for human contact and family."
Amy and the Orphans is now running Off-Broadway at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, and it's the first time Monk has been on a New York stage since 2013. Film, TV, and high-profile regional theatre gigs have been keeping her busy these past few years, notably her stint as a territorial prima oboist on Amazon's Mozart in the Jungle, which kicks off its fourth season this week.
But she was so taken with Ferrentino's play, she found time to fit it into her busy schedule. "I just thought it was incredible," she says. "Scott told me that Lindsey's aunt had Down syndrome, and then she met Jamie [who also has the condition], and then she wrote the play. And when I met Jamie I thought, well of course she wrote the play for her, because she's a little firecracker! She's smart. She has an innocent kind of confidence and joy, which is just lovely to see. And she really, really cares about being an advocate for others with Down syndrome."
Although theatregoers may best remember Monk from Broadway musicals -- Chicago and Pump Boys and Dinettes, which she co-created with a cadre of actor/waiter friends, are also on her résumé -- she's quick to point out that she's always done straight plays. She won her 1993 Tony as Best Featured Actress for Lanford Wilson's Vietnam vet drama Redwood Curtain, and her very first show was a college production of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, though she admits, "I still to this day don't know what the hell it's about."
"I've done many, many, many, many dramas," says Monk, who turns 69 this month. "I did Picnic [also directed by Ellis]. I feel I've had a pretty well-rounded career, actually." Yet even her most serious parts tend to make use of her crack comic timing. While Amy and the Orphans has some very disturbing revelations, Monk still has many humorous moments, starting with her wailing, "We're orphans!" to her 60-year-old brother as they plan their father's funeral. And Maggie's account of her own brush with a possibly catastrophic condition (no spoilers) is the show's hilarious high point.
But whether she's in a comedy or drama, musical or play, onscreen or onstage, Monk insists she approaches all parts the same way. "It's all about being honest and true and trying to find the reality and how to tell the story," she says. "Whether they're funny or they're tragic or they're singing or they're dancing or whatever the hell they're doing, there has to be some reality to it."
Top image: Vanessa Aspillaga, Jamie Brewer, Debra Monk, and Mark Blum in Amy and the Orphans. Photos by Joan Marcus.