The Origin of the Species: Williamsburg resident Sarah Steele in ‘The Humans’
When the audience enters the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre to attend a performance of Stephen Karam’s gripping and scathingly funny play “The Humans,” they are shown to their seats by ushers who deliver a stern warning: “The play is 95 minutes and will be performed without an intermission. Anyone who leaves their seat during the play will not be readmitted.” Considering how compelling the play is, it is hard to imagine, barring a medical or family emergency, how any audience member could possibly abandon his or her seat. In fact, even after the superb cast’s final curtain call, much of the audience lingers to ponder and marvel at what we have all just seen. Which was, quite simply, the finest new American play, thus far, of this decade.
The original production of the play, presented off Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company, opened in October of 2015. The reviews were ecstatic — The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Time Out New York and National Public Radio all declared “The Humans” the Best Play of the Year — and the play went on to win Tonys for Best Play (Karam), Best Featured Actor (Reed Birney), Best Featured Actress (Jayne Houdyshell) and Best Scenic Design (David Zinn.) In addition, Karam was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. The play transferred to Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater in January of this year and then, in an unusual move, relocated to the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater on Aug. 9 (the move became necessary when Second Stage Theater became the new owner of the Helen Hayes and began a 15-month renovation of the building.)
Among the play’s many virtues is the splendid chemistry of the cast members, all of whom have been together since the play’s off-Broadway opening. And for the youngest cast member, Sarah Steele, this is her second time around with Stephen Karam: she was one of the principals in the playwright’s dark 2007 comedy with music “Speech & Debate,” which was the debut production at the Roundabout Underground, and for which Steele received rapturous reviews. One example: Caryn James, in The New York Times, wrote, “The star of this production…is Sarah Steele…the funniest, wailing-est singer this side of ‘American Idol’ auditions. Her own idol is Mary Warren, the accused witch from ‘The Crucible,’ which [her character] has rewritten as a musical with defiant lines like, ‘Try to hang me, see how strong my neck is.’”
Steele, whose surname suits her, is an intrepid and spirited actress who, at the tender age of 28, has amassed an impressive list of film, theater and television credits, among them: her breakout role as Adam Sandler’s overweight 15-year-old daughter (for which the petite Steele had to wear a “fat suit” and gain 20 pounds) in the Jim Brooks’ 2004 film “Spanglish;” the 2013 film “The To Do List,” in which she acted opposite Bill Hader and Aubrey Plaza; off-Broadway in Erika Sheffer’s “Russian Transport,” acting opposite Janeane Garofalo and Morgan Spector; at Lincoln Center Theatre in Greg Pierce’s two-hander “Slowgirl” with Zeljko Ivanek; and in the role that perhaps most people identify her with, Eli Gold’s (Alan Cumming) take-no-prisoners daughter Marissa in seasons two, six and seven of “The Good Wife.” Even with all these credits, Steele can wander Williamsburg without getting recognized. As she told The New York Times in 2015, “[T]he only people who ever recognize me are ladies over 45 on the Upper West Side.” Which is why she never shops at Zabar’s.
In her spare time, Steele enjoys several Williamsburg spots, including Oslo for coffee, restaurants 12 Chairs and Gordon Bennett, Nitehawk for seeing movies and Yoga to the People for yoga classes. She admits she’s a “homebody” and loves just staying in with her boyfriend Raviv Ullman, also an actor. In that same 2015 New York Times article, the writer referred to them as “the cutest couple in Williamsburg.” They still are.
Recently the Eagle had the chance, by telephone, to chat with Steele.
The following are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Eagle: When did you first know you wanted to be an actress?
Sarah Steele: When I was in junior high school [in the Philadelphia suburb of Bala Cynwyd], I joined the Rainbow Company. We were a young troupe of actors who would go to an inner city public school and talk with the students about what subjects resonated for them and were not portrayed in most media or theater. We would then take one of those topics (living in a shelter, absentee parents, pressure to join a gang) and go back to our school and create a play, often with hip hop, rap and other music, and return to the inner city school a week later to perform it and then get their feedback. It was both very rewarding and very cathartic.
Eagle: You were only 15 when you were cast in “Spanglish.” Was that overwhelming for you?
SS: I’m very grateful to James Brooks [the director.] He made me feel very welcome and comfortable. What wasn’t comfortable was the gaining weight and the “fat suit” I had to wear!
But working with Adam and Tea [Leoni] and Paz [Vega] was definitely heady stuff. I learned so much from all of them — and, of course, from Jim.
Eagle: After “Spanglish,” you continued acting — a role on a “Law & Order” episode and roles in the films “Mr. Gibb,” with Tim Daly and Hayden Panettiere, and in Kenneth Lonergan’s snake-bit masterpiece “Margaret,” where you played opposite Anna Paquin, Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo. Then you decided to go back to school, at Episcopal Academy outside Philadelphia, and then on to Columbia University, where you majored in English. Why did you get off the acting merry-go-round at that time?
SS: I needed a break. Everything had happened so quickly. I needed to get my bearings, and returning to school was the best way to do that. Plus, I wanted to just simply be a student, not having to worry about auditions, showcases, my “career.” And I’m very glad I did that; it re-charged my batteries.
Eagle: Stephen [Karam, the writer of “The Humans”] writes polyphonic dialogue, with interruptions and unsettled rhythms. How did you master that?
SS: In ’07 I had done Stephen’s “Speech and Debate,” so I was already familiar with his distinctive dialogue. Plus Joe [director Joe Mantello] wanted the cast to be “off book” by the very first rehearsal. Because all of the pauses, interruptions, overlapping dialogue, were on the page. Stephen would indicate it using slashes. Also, Stephen wrote Brigid with me in mind, my voice, my mannerisms.
Eagle: That leads into my next question: how did you arrive at Brigid’s distinctive cadence? Her almost sing-song delivery?
SS [laughing]: Well, I’m not even aware of that. It certainly wasn’t on the page. It’s kind of the way I speak normally. But there’s also the fact that Brigid constantly wants to keep her family’s spirits up, even in the midst of all the revelations and sadness.
Eagle: When you’re sitting upstairs [Note: the set of “The Humans” is a duplex in Chinatown], by yourself, waiting to see if your sister Aimee is alright, it’s one of the few, if only, times in the play when we see Brigid still and silent. And pensive. What are you, Brigid, thinking about?
SS: I’m very concerned about my family; my dad isn’t sleeping, and when he does, he’s having nightmares; my mother keeps sending Aimee and me these weird, bewildering text messages, and because she’s worried that I’ve lost my faith in the good Lord, she brings me a kitschy ceramic Virgin Mary; my sister Aimee has ulcerative colitis and has just broken up with her longtime girlfriend; and, finally, my grandmother, “Momo,” is confined to a wheelchair and has dementia.
Since the moment the family arrived from Pennsylvania, I’ve fluttered around the apartment trying to cheer everyone up, trying to maintain the facade that all is well and here we all are celebrating Thanksgiving, so let’s be thankful. But at that moment, waiting for my sister to come out of the bathroom to make sure she’s okay, all of that anxiety finally catches up with Brigid. The mask briefly comes off. This moment is Brigid’s only respite. But, also, at every performance, my own face expresses what I’ve been thinking about that day, so the emotions that flicker across my face change with each performance. But the one constant is sadness.
Eagle: Do you think Brigid intends to wound her father when she mentions Richard’s [Brigid’s boyfriend’s] trust fund, which he’ll inherit when he turns 40?
SS: You know, when you’re playing a character, any character, you try to think the best of that character. Even if it’s Lady MacBeth! It doesn’t occur to Brigid that she might be hurting her father. What it’s really about is reassuring her parents, who see her living in this dark, claustrophobic apartment not that far from where 9/11 happened and close to where her father’s mother almost lost her life in the Triangle Fire, and they are worried sick — even though they try to cover it with humor — about the safety and security of their youngest daughter. Brigid intends no harm. She’s trying to keep their spirits up — and her own as well.
Eagle: Why do you think Brigid has been unsuccessful as an artist? Is it simply that she’s a mediocre artist in a very competitive New York City environment?
SS: Well, you’re right about the competitive environment. But I actually think she’s a pretty good artist, and I think she’s gotten better since getting her college degree. It’s more about this moment right now, when it’s so hard to make a living as any kind of artist. And it’s so expensive to live in New York.
Eagle: Who were the actors whose work you admired growing up?
SS: I remember being really little and watching “Frazier” and noting that David Hyde Pierce was very special. I also worshipped, and still do, Kate Winslet. And, although this might sound a bit silly, I liked Matthew Perry in “Friends.”
Eagle: Can you remember the first Broadway play you saw?
SS: The first Broadway play I saw in New York was “Beauty and the Beast.” But before that I saw the national tour of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in Philadelphia. And that was the first moment I thought, “I can do that.”
Eagle: Since both of your parents are doctors, were they disappointed you didn’t study medicine?
SS: My mother has said “From when you were very young, it was clear that there was only one thing that was going to work for you.” I think I really was born an actress. When my family talks medicine, I zone out. My mind just doesn’t work that way.
Eagle: It might have to if you ever play a doctor!
SS: Then I won’t zone out!
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