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Five Minutes with Mercedes Ruehl
One of this season’s most acclaimed Broadway plays was Richard Greenberg’s The American Plan at the Manhattan Theater Club. Academy and Tony-award winner Mercedes Ruehl stole the show as Eva Adler, an alternately lovable and malevolent Jewish matriarch spending the summer in the Catskills with her daughter, Lili. We caught up with Ruehl before the last week of the run:
How did you perfect that German accent?
I took a lot of the accents, facial ticks and mannerisms from two women — a nurse who used to assist my primary care physician, she was German and marvelous, and Irene Worth, who played my German-Jewish grandmother in Lost in Yonkers.
Did any of the performances particularly stand out for you?
Yes, a student matinee, where the sweet, innocent, passionate response of the students was astounding. At the very end of the play, Lili translates the little song that she’s singing and she says, “Happiness exists, but it’s for other people.” Mostly the adult audiences will chuckle there at the irony of it, but the students were absolutely silent. You could hear a pin drop and I felt that they got it. They got the tragedy of it.
How was working with Lily Rabe [daughter of Jill Clayburgh and David Rabe] who plays your daughter, Lili?
Delightful. You usually unconsciously pick up outside the play a little bit of the relationship inside the play. And so we’ve had a relationship that’s been a little mother-daughter and a little friend-friend. And we’d gone out a couple of times and had drinks with Jill.
Do you have any backstage rituals?
The younger actors get there very early and do warm-up exercises. But I’ve found as you get older, you can prepare in about five or seven minutes. And I have these special little things [in my dressing room] always lined up for me when I come in every night: A little St. Anthony medal from a dear, dear actor friend, Antonia Ray, a little lucky golden ladybug that I bought in Florence and a crystal blue bird that a friend of mine from high school sent me last year.
Now that the run is almost over, how will you look back on the play?
Every time a play ends, it’s like a little death, you know? So I’m not looking forward to it. This is gonna be a hard one to say goodbye to.
What’s next for you?
It’s not absolutely definite, but I think I’ll be doing a play, Dinner, that will start at the Bay Street Theatre [in Sag Harbor, NY] this summer. It was done in London a couple of years ago. It’s a very funny but very, very dark play by Moira Buffini. It cuts like a razor.
The final performance of The American Plan is this Sunday, March 22.
Photos: Joseph Maida for W (top) and Carol Rosegg