S ince the age of 18, when she was cast as Maria in 1998’s Sound of Music revival, Laura Benanti has been working at a breakneck pace (slowing down only after she actually broke her neck on the set of Into the Woods). Last year, she earned a Tony for the title role in Gypsy. But she’s never been in a nonmusical play on Broadway until this week, starring as a captivating Victorian wife in Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the vibrator play. She spoke with Boris Kachka about the particulars of her onstage orgasm.
Your character, Mrs. Givings—the wife of a scientist treating women for hysteria via vibrator—seems at first a bit irritating …
Oh, gosh! Thank you? I don’t know if she’s designed to be irritating. Her buoyancy can be at times off-putting, but she just tries new things. It’s almost a childlike way of being. She knows she wants something; she doesn’t know what it is or how to get it.
What she winds up getting is a mechanically assisted orgasm. Was that a difficult thing to enact onstage?
Sarah [Ruhl] wrote a really brilliant stage direction that sold me on wanting to audition, which was that this is a pre-pornographic world we’re talking about. Nowadays, by the age of 10, we know what a woman should look like and act like when she’s having an orgasm. We are by nature, at this point, a pornographic society. But this is a person who has never in her life had this experience. There’s no understanding of “This is sex.” So what is it? It’s magic, and it’s science. This is not When Harry Met Sally in the diner.
There’s some male nudity onstage, but you remain clothed. Are you happy about that?
I had my agents ask if I had to be nude, because I wouldn’t have auditioned. Gypsy was enough for me—bikinis, that’s enough.
Did it still feel like a risk?
When my agent told me about it, I was like, “What?!” And I read it and I wept. I tend to be a really fearful person by nature—that’s been my biggest regret in life—and so I decided on my 30th birthday that I would become a risk-taker. Well, ask and ye shall receive.
Where did this fear come from? I feel like I was such a joyous little kid, and as often happens when you become a 13-year-old girl, all that goes away and it’s about being pretty and popular, and I think I held onto that a little too long. I understand [Mrs. Givings’s] desire to be seen fully for who she is and not for who she’s presenting herself to be.
Is that why you’re breaking into straight drama?
I do think musical-theater actors can get a bad rap, and I see why. There is a certain slickness—there’s nothing better than an amazing musical, but an okay musical can be one of the worst times you’ve ever had.
The Wedding Singer, which you starred in—would you say that was an okay musical?
Yes. [Pause] Well, I’m grateful for all the experiences that I’ve had.