The play has three central characters, named A, B, and C. Metcalf is B, the tolerant, ironical caretaker to A, a rich, frail cantankerous 91-year-old woman (or is she 92?) played by Glenda Jackson. C, played by Alison Pill (The Newsroom), is a young, aggressive lawyer.
Metcalf's new Broadway role comes on the heels of her 2017 Tony win for Doll House, 2. We spoke on the phone last week:
It's been quite an amazing season for you, hasn't it? What's it like to have such success, all at the same time — on stage, in the movies, and on TV?
It's really rare. I've been fortunate to have a lot of really great material come my way in the past few years, whether it's on stage or film or TV.
To me, it all comes down to the writing. So it's really been a gift in this past year and a half, it's been, across the board, in theater, TV, and film.
I can't imagine that ever happening to me again. It's just a fluke and luck that I've been able to bounce around between the three media and not burn out on any one, because I do have [that] fear … I don't want to lose my passion for, say, theater. So it's really been great to mix it up.
Which medium do you prefer?
I feel the most comfortable in theater — that's where I started out, and I feel like I know what I'm doing. I like the rehearsal process. You get a nice big long amount of time in the rehearsal room, where in TV and film you generally don't.
But now that our play has opened, I enjoy the run of the show, another 12 weeks. We're still exploring the parts and how the audience is reacting to it, which is always informative — eight times a week — even though you've basically mapped out what your performance is, but it's still a learning process throughout the whole run.
So I continue to enjoy it, past opening night. This is a really complex play — I've never seen it mounted before. It must be fun for an audience to figure out what's going on in the second half, to start putting the puzzle pieces together.
Did you audition for Three Tall Women or did they call you, knowing you'd be perfect for it?
Well, I don't know that I'm perfect for it, to tell you the truth, but Joe Mantello [the director] and I love working together. And Scott Rudin [the producer] had already asked Glenda Jackson if she would like to do 3TW.
So she was on board. And Joe was set to direct. And so Joe and Scott asked me, so I didn't audition.
I wanted to be in the room with both those guys and also with Glenda. I wanted to see her process.
I said yes before I even read it because of the people involved, and also because I'd never done an Edward Albee play before, and I knew that the play had been very, very successful 23 years ago, Off-Broadway. I knew it was an A team, and that it was going to be a great project.
What's your favorite moment in the 3TW script?
I have a lot of them. Some of my favorite moments are in the first act — the unexpected humor — and a lot of it comes in the crazy relationship between A and B.
I find some of their interactions really amusing, and then there are other more poignant moments that are favorites of mine to play, like the last speech I have directly to the audience: "the happiest moment of all," getting "a 360-degree view." Because I'm standing so close to the audience at that point, I like hearing a lot of recognition from them. I hear a lot of "aaah."
Do you identify with B?
Sure. The three of us are playing our own ages. I think Albee has written parts that are really true to their outlook on life at their ages. So, yes, because I'm living at that age right now [B is 52, Metcalf is 62], I really can identify with her. And I identify with B in the first act as a caregiver, someone who has inherited this job and can be good at it and can also show the negative side of it.
What's the relationship among the three of you like — as actors, not characters?
We were very dependent on each other in the rehearsal room and on Joe. It took all four of us to crack this play.
It was very, very hard because the humor, the glibness of the language — it's not apparent just on the page. You have to get in the room and up on your feet and start experimenting to find it. That's true of all plays, in a sense, but this one was very elusive for a very long time.
Backstage, we always check in with each other. We go down to Glenda's dressing room when we hear the five-minute call to places, and we do a quick speed-through of the first 10 or 12 pages of the show, just to sort of be in the same space, say hi before we take the stage together, maybe talk about things that happened in the show the previous night if we need to, just touch base. That's our little ritual.
You're not just working for yourself to stand out; you're working for the good of the whole.
Albee's pauses are almost as good as Beckett's, almost more eloquent than his words. For me, the best one is, "It opens up whole new vistas [pause] of decline, of obsolescence, of peculiarity …" It's such an unexpected conclusion to that sentence and you do it so beautifully. There must be other moments in the script like that.
I try to keep up the pace when we're all bouncing around and talking amongst ourselves. If we keep it brisk, then we feel like we earned our pauses later.
Your genius seems to be in comic timing. How much of this is scripted or directed, and how much just instinct?
I find it interesting to take a line that's not really necessarily begging to be a laugh line and see what I can do with it. And those lines tend to be more unexpected if you can make them work.
So that's my own little personal challenge if I spot one of those, just hanging out there on its own, not bothering anybody, and see if I can give it some life, some extra zip.
In that sense, it's not instinctual, it's more technical. But there is instinct to it, too. Sometimes I'm lucky if, when I'm reading, I hear a line in my head as funny, and then I can recreate it that way.
And a good director helps. Joe gave me a really good one, when Glenda says, "He had a glass eye" and Alison says, "Which one?"
I flop backwards on the bed and say, "Oh, come on." Joe gave me that flopping back.
More than 18 million people watched the first episode of the new Roseanne. What does that feel like, to have that many people looking at you?
I don't know what to make of that — to hear that it was 18 million was unbelievable. They were doing a lot of press in L.A. and New York, so I knew the numbers would be good, but not that good.
But it's not daunting because I tend to forget about that part of it.
You're just going into your little bubble every day with a very small cast and small number of writers, and even on tape night, it's really only 150 people, so I tend to forget about the larger numbers. And thank God — I'd be frozen, too self-conscious to do anything.