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After a decade hiatus, TV star Tim Daly returns to the NYC stage in a provocative new play
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In Manhattan Theatre Club's world premiere production of The Ruins of Civilization, Tim Daly is the odd man out -- literally. He is the sole male surrounded by female artists: playwright Penelope Skinner, director Leah C. Gardiner, and the rest of the four-person cast. But it doesn't faze him; in fact, he's used to it. "I seem to find myself constantly in a sea of estrogen!" he jokes. "I have a mother, three sisters, and a daughter. There are a lot of women in my life, but I love that."
His character, Silver -- a privileged British writer living in luxury at some point in an unspecified totalitarian future -- also enjoys the company of women. There's his younger, acutely sensitive wife, Dolores (Rachael Holmes); their government case worker, Joy (Orlagh Cassidy), who checks in to make sure Dolores is no longer fantasizing about having children (it's technically not illegal but discouraged via financial incentives); and Mara (Roxanna Hope), the impoverished immigrant Dolores insists they harbor. Both Silver and Dolores acknowledge that due to climate change, income inequality, rampant poverty, and an out-of-control population, the world is crumbling. But while she is desperate to make a difference, Silver is perpetually pragmatic: What, really, can they do?
In less subtle hands Silver could come off as a one-note villain, but Daly calls upon his immense likability to keep him sympathetic, even when he does reprehensible things. "Like most human beings, he is deeply flawed but also has some wonderful qualities," he says. "I think the play would be diminished if we didn't believe Silver loved Dolores and was always trying to act in his family's best interests. The brilliant thing about the play is some of Silver's arguments are not necessarily wrong, like the idea of, 'Why cause yourself emotional pain over something you can do nothing about?' As a writer, Penny is very good at teasing out male to female arguments and how they work. Here's this guy trying to be rational and a woman who's all emotional. It's interesting and insightful."
Setting Ruins in the future means audiences can experience its characters' dilemmas at a comfortable distance. But for those of us who've acknowledged the sad irony of lamenting the plight of the hungry while digging in to an expensive brunch, it's clear that Skinner is really writing about the here and now. "It's a very timely play," says Daly. "Look at the refugee crises all over the world, both the ones in the news like Syria, and the ones that aren't, like Africa. We have an exploding population and not enough resources, and we're not using our intellect and creativity to figure out how to deal with it all. And if we don't get going, we're going to have a lot more problems than we already have. It's depressing but it's also hopeful, because my experience with human beings is that when there's a problem and we galvanize around it, then we get talking and create solutions."
Off-stage and screen, Daly is well-known for supporting liberal causes, though he calls himself a "compassionate realist." Perhaps that's why Daly is able to make Silver's journey so relatable as he grapples with empathy and connection. "This is beautiful playwriting," he says. "It's about people who are trying to find or stay in touch with their humanity. I think that Silver is operating from a place where he believes he is doing the correct thing. The tragedy for him is that he comes to believe he missed an opportunity to see the world differently."
Though Daly may be famous for his television work, notably his stints on the sitcom Wings and the dramedy Private Practice, and his current part opposite real-life girlfriend Téa Leoni on Madam Secretary, he has a long family history with theatre. His late father, character actor James Daly, frequently appeared on Broadway, his sister is Tony Award-winner Tyne Daly, and he started out in summer stock before graduating to the New York stage in the title role of Manhattan Theatre Club's Oliver Oliver in 1985. He's returned to the boards intermittently over the years, both regionally and in NYC -- his last Broadway appearance was in the 2006 revival of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. But the strikingly youthful 60-year-old is hoping to fit in more stage time. "I love the theatre, and it's where I would like to spend the third act of my career," he says. "Luckily I have been fortunate enough to have some TV work so I can afford to do that. I especially like doing new plays like this. It's exciting, and it's difficult. Kind of like giving birth: You go through a lot of pain and you hope when it's born that other people will think it's as beautiful as you do."
Daly already has a few ideas about the shows he would like to do next, and they're family affairs. "Before I start pushing up daisies, my son Sam [also an actor] and I will have to do Long Day's Journey Into Night. If it doesn't ruin our relationship, it would be a great experience. And Tyne and I have a play we want to do. It's a new play, but it's unfortunately a little encumbered right now, so I can't say more. The short answer is yes, there will be some Dalys on stage together. We just need to find the right moment."
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top image: Tim Daly and Rachael Holmes.