Martha Plimpton on Returning to Broadway in 'A Delicate Balance'

Brigitte Lacombe
Martha Plimpton in 'A Delicate Balance'

"This is not a play for the faint of heart — Albee does not make it easy on his actors"

Martha Plimpton has gone from playing a trashy blue-collar grandmother on Raising Hope for four seasons to now playing a spoiled WASP daughter on Broadway in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance.

"There's very little similarity between Virginia Chance and Julia in this play," says Plimpton, speaking by phone on her way to the Golden Theatre, where the all-star revival opened last week. "There's just no comparison between the two! One is a fun, long-hours, raucous, ridiculous comedy, and the other is an Edward Albee Pulitzer Prize-winning play in front of an audience."

Saying this, she laughs — something she doesn't get to do very much in the role of Julia, the almost-four-times-divorced daughter of Agnes (Glenn Close) and Tobias (John Lithgow), who returns home in the wake of her most recent failed marriage.

The play premiered on Broadway in 1966, with Marian Seldes originating the role of Julia. It's set in a wealthy suburban home, where Agnes and Tobias are interrupted one evening by the unexpected arrival of their friends Harry (Bob Balaban) and Edna (Clare Higgins), who ask to be taken in because they are gripped by an unexplained fear. The story becomes an acute commentary on the upper-middle-class in Albee's absurdist and comedic manner.

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"This is not a play for the faint of heart," says Plimpton. "Albee does not make it easy on his actors. He acknowledges that Julia is a mysterious character and that perhaps she's not quite as fully developed a person as the other people are in the play. A lot of what happens to her happens offstage in a funny way. And she's got these hairpin turns during the course of the play that all happen very quickly."

So does Plimpton do anything to prepare backstage for those "hairpin turns"?

"The main thing for me is to just commit and make the decision," she says. "I just have to take Albee's work at face value and actually not do too much to impose my own modes of thinking or operating onto it, because I've found that in doing that, you can really turn yourself into knots — and at a certain point, even sort of wind up going up your own ass a little bit."

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In his review for The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney writes, "Plimpton makes Julia sulky, selfish and demanding but also a panicked child threatened with the removal of her security blanket."

Being back onstage, however, gives the actor some security. Returning to New York signals a sort of homecoming for Plimpton, who grew up in the city and around the arts. (Her parents, Keith Carradine and Shelley Plimpton, met while in the original production of Hair.) In addition to her TV work, she remains widely known for such 1980s films as The Goonies, Parenthood and Running on Empty. But Plimpton in a relatively short period of time has built a reputation as a versatile stage actor.

She got off to an uncertain start with her Broadway debut in the poorly received play Sixteen Wounded in 2004. But Plimpton bounced back with a remarkable surge of stage work, beginning in 2006 with a brief but memorable role in Conor McPherson's Shining City. She followed that with Tom Stoppard's three-part Russian history epic The Coast of Utopia, Caryl Churchill's feminist seriocomedy Top Girls and the Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey, scoring Tony Award nominations in three consecutive years. Further demonstration of her range came in productions of Shakespeare's Cymbeline and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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During these last four years filming Raising Hope, Plimpton took a mini-break from the stage, finding herself too tired or busy to do theater. But now she feels she's where she's supposed to be — even if people might call her a television actor.

"I haven't noticed that that's been totally prevalent in people's minds, and if it were, I wouldn't pay much attention to it," Plimpton says of being classified as a TV star coming to Broadway. "I do get bored easily, and so I do like to work in a variety of mediums. It's only in the United States I feel that we try to limit actors' flexibility."

Plimpton points to England as a place where performers move fluidly from television to stage to radio and more. She spent time there in the spring, when she did Jon Robin Baitz's play Other Desert Cities at London's Old Vic. (That production also starred Higgins, with whom Plimpton is happy to reunite in A Delicate Balance.) For now, she's enjoying her time back under the stage lights, without the anchor of a television series.

"If you've chosen to be an actor, you're choosing a line of work that has relatively little job security," she says, adding that she has no complaints. "Perhaps one day I'll find another job in television. Perhaps I won't. There's no way of knowing. You have to live very much in the moment as an actor and accept those things. If you can accept those things, I find you can have a very happy life."

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