What prompts a world-renowned actress to appear in a production in a 99-seat theater in Los Angeles?
It's a situation that can cause her fellow actors to purr in pleasure, her director to smile like a Cheshire cat, and publicists to lose their cool.
In the case of Helen Mirren, one of Great Britain's foremost actresses, the answer is so simple she tosses it off without a thought.
"It was a double thing," Mirren says. "I've never worked in the theater here in Los Angeles, and it was a great opportunity for me to do that. On top of that, being offered the opportunity to play such a really wonderful role. In my knowledge, this is probably one of the best roles written for a woman. I would count it among the top 10 best ever. That obviously has a lot to do with it."
The play is Alan Ayckbourn's "Woman in Mind," which opened this weekend at West Hollywood's Tiffany Theatre. (Things come in pairs: Another production of the same play opened last week at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.)
Mirren stars in the big-screen success "Where Angels Fear to Tread," adapted from the E. M. Forster novel, and recently won the British academy award for her Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in PBS' "Prime Suspect." At home, she's known as one of England's top classical actresses. With the Royal Shakespeare Company, she has played most of the plum classical roles: Ophelia, Cressida, Lady Macbeth, and the title role in Strindberg's "Miss Julie," among others. Film fans will recall her memorable appearances in "Cal," for which the Cannes Film Festival named her best actress, "Excalibur," "Pascali's Island" with Ben Kingsley, and the stunning "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover."
The production's director, Dennis Erdman, who will be remembered for other Tiffany Theatre productions, "Laughing Wild" and "How the Other Half Loves," and a gentle, hypnotic production of "Making Noise Quietly" at Taper Too, wanted Mirren for the role.
" 'Woman in Mind'," he says, "is like doing 'St. Joan' without a very strong actress in the central role. The edifice would completely fall apart. I've been wanting to do this play for a very long time, and it wasn't until Helen was able to do it that we went ahead."
Paxton Whitehead plays the woman's doctor in the play. Also British, he needs no introduction to American audiences. Broadway has seen him frequently ("Lettice and Lovage," "Noises Off," "Beyond the Fringe"). He listens contentedly as Mirren continues.
"Having said it's a wonderful role," she says, "all the roles in the play are really strong and well-developed. Which is pretty rare, I find, in modern plays anyway. You might have one or two great roles, and then everything else is kind of filled in."
Whitehead perks up. Sometimes his byplay with Mirren sounds like Ayckbourn dialogue.
" All the roles in 'Hamlet' are very good," he injects.
"Gertrude is a rotten part," Mirren counters. " I think."
"Well," Whitehead purrs, settling back, "a few are good."
Mirren pauses and changes pace. It's time to explain just why her role is "one of the best ever written for a woman."
Sitting on the edge of the Tiffany stage, leaning back on her outstretched arms, the energy is inward, for conversation, not on the outside for an audience.
"It's a comedy," she says, underlining the word. "A comedy about a woman who's having a nervous breakdown. It sounds like an oxymoron, but that's in fact what it is, which is what makes it quite extraordinary, that a writer like Ayckbourn can take what's in fact an incredibly serious subject, and deal with it seriously but at the same time write an extremely funny play."
A playwright, Mirren suggests, might have a character in the middle of a nervous breakdown, but generally would put the character at one side of the stage, while others are completely ignoring what's happening. "In this play," she says, "Ayckbourn has put this woman and her psyche in the center of the stage."
She's center stage, but still being ignored, Whitehead explains. "I don't think it's giving anything away to say that everything you see on stage is taking place in her mind, hence the title. It becomes clear," he says with a smile, "it just depends on how soon it does. But, of course, once the reviewers review it, they'll tell the plot anyway, so you won't have any surprises." He's set up his punch line, and it gets the laugh it deserves. "Unless you have an intelligent critic, but then you have this oxymoron again."
Someone slipping on a banana peel and taking a pratfall always gets a laugh. That's exactly how Ayckbourn finds the humor in his character's nervous breakdown.
Mirren agrees. "The closest I've seen to it, without sounding pretentious, is Chekhov. It's interesting that he called his plays comedies. I don't know about in America, but in England actors are always struggling with that because it's so hard to find the comedy in it."
Actors rarely have trouble finding the comedy in Alan Ayckbourn's plays. But from the beginning, they always had a dark layer beneath the laughs, and as he has matured, that layer has gotten darker and darker. Angelenos who saw his "Henceforward" at the Mark Taper Forum earlier this year know how dark that is. Yet there's always the comedy. In some ways, Ayckbourn's outlook is very British. They're a people who have always had the advantage of being able to laugh at themselves.
Well, almost always, as Mirren details in discussing the Britishness of the play. The British, she says, "are not people who go to self-help groups. Or EST weekends. To go to a psychiatrist would be so embarrassing, an impossible thing to do. It's a very English sort of attitude. That avoidance of facing up to this sort of thing is pretty English. In England there is a big resistance to dealing with these things."
One similarity between Americans and the British, Mirren adds, is the willingness to seek non-professional help via newspaper columnists. In England they are called "agony aunts."
"It's just that the sense of self-help," Mirren says, "dealing with problems like this by going to a psychiatrist or family self-help group, to me, all that kind of thing is fairly American. It doesn't really exist in England. It's what we call the 'stiff upper lip.' You sweep it under the carpet; you pretend it's not there."
Whitehead nods vigorously. "Don't let the neighbors know."
"You pretend," Mirren continues, "that it's not happening, even within your own family. It's a scene that happens recurrently in this play, that someone is actually having a crisis on the stage, and everyone ignores it. They can't emotionally deal with it. They have to talk about whether to have a cup of tea or not."
And still the Ayckbourn viewpoint and the Ayckbourn humor are there.
Erdman feels that "just watching people struggling to survive is funny, and watching them destroy each other in their struggle to survive."
Mirren adds, "Certainly these people on the stage don't think of themselves as being funny. They all take themselves very seriously."
"Well," says Whitehead, "farce is tragedy that happens to someone else."
"Woman in Mind," Tiffany Theatre, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets, $22.50 to $24.50. For reservations, (310) 289-2999.