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The Tony winner shows her down-and-dirty side as an embattled feminist in Relevance
If Jayne Houdyshell's life were the subject of a suspense novel, the central mystery would be: Where was she before 2004? That's when she got her big break at age 50 in Lisa Kron's Well at the Public Theater, portraying the author's chronically ill, semi-tragic mother. Houdyshell's smart, folksy performance wowed audiences and critics, and helped catapult the production to Broadway where she earned her first Tony nomination in 2006. Ten years later, she won the award as another long-suffering matriarch in The Humans. Now she's back Off-Broadway in JC Lee's feminist dramedy Relevance at MCC Theater.
But let's back up: Where did Houdyshell come from?
Regional theatre is the short answer. The native of Topeka, Kansas graduated from acting school in 1974, married a fellow student, divorced in 1980, and moved to NYC the same year. She rented a studio in Inwood while planning her next move, or rather, moves. Houdyshell spent the next two decades gigging in venues around the country, cutting her teeth on classical texts and iconic roles. Then, in 2000, she started a new chapter: original work in New York. A wryly raunchy cameo in Charles L. Mee's True Love put Houdyshell on Kron's radar. The playwright invited her to workshop Well and soon Broadway and prestigious Off-Broadway companies came calling. "It was a little snowball that started down the mountain and got bigger and bigger," Houdyshell says. "It's like I had two careers. One was out on the road doing regional, and now the very happy career I have in New York."
Her résumé displays a steady commitment to developing meaty new plays like Relevance, which is set at a literary conference where feminist author Theresa (Houdyshell) locks horns with the younger, African-American academic Msemaji (Pascale Armand) on a panel. With issues of race and class simmering barely beneath the surface, the women's testy exchange goes viral via social media, and the imperious, arrogant Theresa finds herself fighting for her reputation and livelihood.
Lee's dialogue is barbed and brainy as befits a battle royal between theorists wrangling for dominance -- and book contracts. And Tony-nominated director Liesl Tommy (Eclipsed) stages the affair as a stylish, intellectually dense comedy of manners.
After seeing Houdyshell play a succession of dowdy maternal figures over the past few years in The Humans, A Doll's House, Part 2, and Fish in the Dark, it's a treat to watch her let rip as Theresa, who's vain, aggressive, and vindictive. "It was one of the reasons I was attracted to it," she says with a chuckle. "I haven't had an opportunity to play someone with that kind of ferocity in a while. Outside of Madame Morrible in Wicked, I think this is the first role I've played with that kind of personal and intellectual grit. Also, the complexity of the issues in the play were really appealing."
Since Relevance charges boldly into issues of intersectionality between first-wave white feminism and African-American identity politics, it's no surprise that the multicultural cast and creative team engaged in intense discussions during the rehearsal process. "We did talk a lot about the blindness of white privilege," Houdyshell says. "How impossible it is to see that in oneself, and how that impacts people who are regarded as 'other.' So much of Relevance is about blind spots and how hard they are to identify."
The conversation inevitably turns to #MeToo and the nonstop scandals of influential men being brought low by charges of sexual harassment and misconduct. "If you're white in this country, or if you're a man, can you ask yourself: 'How do I personally contribute to a collective prejudice that is not helpful to our being the best society that we can be?'" she wonders. Houdyshell believes true change will only occur once those with the inherent societal power -- be they white, or male -- enter the dialogue fully and honestly. "It's on each of us, as individuals, to choose to wake up," Houdyshell says. With challenging, conversation-provoking plays like Relevance hitting NYC stages, "hopefully, the blinders are falling off."
Top image: Jayne Houdyshell and Pascale Armand in Relevance. Photos by Joan Marcus.