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The Tony winner on her dramatic journey with this outrageous black comedy
When Julie White emerges in front of the Booth Theatre curtain to deliver an over-the-top prologue in rhyming verse as blood spurts from her neck, she sets the tone for Taylor Mac's Gary. A gleefully gruesome comedy about the little people tasked with cleaning up the big messes left by the rich and powerful, the show is subtitled "A Sequel to Titus Andronicus." You don't need to be familiar with that Shakespeare tragedy to follow the antics of existential clown Gary (Nathan Lane), world-weary maid Janice (Kristine Nielsen) and manic midwife Carol (White) as they try to find meaning in their lives during the fall of the Roman Empire. But those who know how Titus Andronicus ends won't be surprised to see massive piles of anatomically correct corpses when the curtain finally rises after Carol's seeming demise.
It's not much of a spoiler to reveal that Carol doesn't really die -- it's not like Julie White, a Tony winner for The Little Dog Laughed and a familiar face from TV (Nurse Jackie) and film (the Transformers movies), would just do a cameo. Yet she almost didn't do Gary at all. Originally, Andrea Martin was cast as Janice, and Nielsen was playing Carol. But when Martin had to bow out due to injury, Nielsen slipped into her role, and White came on as Carol… a week before the show's first preview.
"I had five rehearsals before I was doing it in front of an audience," says White, 57, with a laugh. "During previews, sometimes I'd think, oh shit! I don't actually know what's happening right now. Carol is only in half the play, so I would show up for rehearsal desperate for time and just sit there and wait and wait while they worked on other scenes. And then I realized, this is Carol! She's so aggrieved that she doesn't get any time, that she's secondary, that no one notices her, that she's a small part in the grand scheme of things, so I just used that frustration. When she finally gets some focus, she just goes ape shit amateur theatrical!"
Indeed, Carol disappears for an hour as Gary and Janice go over the macabre minutia of dealing with the dead (bodily fluids and gas are involved) and bicker over whether they should try to make a difference in this barbarous world. But when Carol reappears, high-strung, bug-eyed and freaking out over a possibly dead baby, she completely changes the dynamics of the story, which shifts from punch line-filled philosophical arguments to raucous, radical action as the trio engage in a jaw-dropping piece of political performance art that Gary calls "a Fooling."
"I grew up in the church in Texas and there was a group of ladies who would perform in choir but they also had a modern interpretive dance group," White recalls. "They would wear these Martha Graham gowns and yes, it was as funny as it sounds, but it wasn't supposed to be. And I thought, maybe that was Carol. Maybe she was a fan of the theatre and, you know, when she gets an opportunity to be creative, when Gary offers her the chance to participate in the Fooling, she's just so happy. I think of her as a crafter. I wish I could have gotten a glue gun into the show but there wasn't time."
Although White is thrilled to be part of the production, she acknowledges that her journey hasn't been easy. She missed out on the December workshop, weeks of rehearsal and time to just sit and talk to the playwright and director, George C. Wolfe, about what Carol is all about. She also had technical things to worry about, like where to stand during her prologue so she didn't douse theatregoers in blood. "We sort of had to work that out in front of the audience," she says. "The first week that I did it, the first couple of rows were like the splash zone at SeaWorld because I didn't realize how far I could turn left or right without splattering them. Now I almost get 'em, but I don't. If you sit in the first few rows, you probably won't get sprayed. But if you do, it does wash out very easily!"
There was also the issue of cast chemistry. Happily, White and Lane hit it off right away, and she and Nielsen were already friends, having costarred in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike on Broadway. "I came in knowing Kristine had been playing Carol and, when I was first reading the script, I was like, 'Oh shit, that's a Kristine bit -- I can't do a Kristine bit!'" White recalls. "So I had to come up with my version of Carol and I had to do it really fast. From the get-go, everything I was doing made Nathan laugh and having his approval, I think, gave me so much courage and confidence to go forward with crazy-ass choices."
Clearly White's "crazy-ass choices" are working. Not only does she get some of the play's biggest laughs, often with seemingly mundane lines ("I should read more!" almost stops the show), but this week, she was nominated for a Tony along with Nielsen, Wolfe and the play itself. (Gary received seven nods in total.)
She's also become one of the show's biggest evangelists, and raves about the sly way it addresses finding hope and inspiration in today's depressing environment. "The amount of stuff happening in the world right now, sometimes you think, what can I do?" she says. "We just get lulled into inactivity or complacency. Maybe you organize your drawers in the Marie Kondo method and that will mean there aren't kids in cages in El Paso. The play asks, what is our culpability? It's disturbing and wildly funny. Isn't that fantastic?"
Top image: Julie White backstage at Gary. Photo by Little Fang Photography.