Detroit’s Finest

Photo: Jody Rogac. Styling by Rebecca Ramsey; Hair by Tamas Tuzes Using Redken; Makeup by Asami Taguchi Using Chanel; Unitard by Body Wrappers/Angelo Luzio.

This is going to be an awful quote,” says Sarah Sokolovic, pricking up a journalist’s ears, “and I don’t mean it in any sexual way.”

Go on.

“I often joke that my mantra is ‘Other girls play coy and hard to catch, but other girls ain’t havin’ any fun.’ ” Sokolovic, like Ado Annie from Oklahoma!, is just a girl who can’t say no. Fate offers up a proposition—“I was literally lying on my back in Montana, looking at the sky, and I thought, Well, I guess the next adventure is a coast”—and she acquiesces. The result, so far, has been the exact opposite of a Terrible Fix: She’s the breakout star of Detroit at Playwrights Horizons, the breakthrough black comedy of the fall season. Sokolovic stars alongside name-brand talents Amy Ryan, David Schwimmer, and John Cullum and opposite tiger-eyed sex-bomb Darren Pettie. And, yes, “I make out with everyone in the play except for John Cullum.” She seems to regretthe omission.

Her character, Sharon, is the soul and conscience of the play—while reminding us, in every taut, tender moment, that she might just be the sociopath next door: Sharon and Kenny (Pettie), freshly rehabbed and aglow with trouble and possibility, move into the tract house beside struggling married squares Mary and Ben (Ryan and Schwimmer). Clumsy, wonderfully disastrous attempts at neighborliness ensue. Sokolovic’s role is a delicate paradox of total openness and bottomless mystery—which also happens to be more or less her preferred state of being, in art and life. “The older I get, the more I like being vulnerable. I really like being nervous and awkward at times and allowing people to see that.” She laughs nervously, mid-sentence, as something occurs to her. “And there’ve been many, many nights when I’ve cried about this very same thing!”

Sokolovic seems to be perpetually lingering at what Tony Kushner called the threshold of revelation—if you can call it lingering. As we walk briskly across town, my hobbit legs struggle to keep up with her five-foot-nine strides, and we discuss her weather-beaten cowboy boots: The purple leather has cracked open above the toe crease. She bought them in Montana in 2005, the same year she decided to come to New York. To look at them, you’d think she walked. “I like to wear shoes until they fall apart,” Sokolovic explains, revealing her midwestern thrift. “These have been resoled twice. They’ve outlasted several relationships.” Sokolovic is a wanderer by nature, but, like Sharon, she yearns for neighborliness. Her block in Cobble Hill, she says, is the closest thing to a community she’s ever experienced: “There’s this wonderful man who lives in the middle of the block, and he has beautiful white hair and he sits on the stoop every day with his cat. And every time I pass by, he makes the same joke. He says, ‘When ya gonna walk him?’ I don’t know him, but I feel like I do know him. It’s the first time I’ve felt like I really know the people who live near me.”

Sokolovic grew up working class, on the edge of the West Allis district of Milwaukee, a first-ring suburb not unlike the one depicted in Detroit. It wasn’t hand-to-mouth, but “the people I come from have a belief in working hard and going to bed feeling like you earned your sleep.” Her father worked for a mining-equipment company most of his life and managed local bands on the side. (Before he died, he co-wrote a book about Elvis.) “He was a huge music geek, and I’m a music geek as a result. I sing, and I play a little guitar. I’m actually very shocked I didn’t grow up to be a rock star, but I think my dad was probably happy about that.” (It’s no fluke she ended up starring in The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, a musical based on the stranger-than-fiction story of three sisters from the sticks press-ganged into a rock band by their father: Sokolovic, fresh out of Yale School of Drama in 2011, got a Drama Desk nomination for her portrayal of the rebellious Betty.)

Sokolovic effortlessly and unaffectedly peppers her conversation with references equal parts Oscar Hammerstein and Hammer of the Gods. She never thought she’d be an actress: A contemplative kid, she imagined herself a classicist, burning the midnight oil surrounded by old Greek and Latin tomes. At 16, she auditioned for a community-theater production of Damn Yankees on a whim and was surprised to be cast as brassy reporter Gloria. (“I think they thought I was, like, 30.”) When she moved to New York, the shoestring theater troupe she started with friends “was called Hipgnosis Theatre Company. With the G in the middle, like the [design company that created] album art for Led Zeppelin. Which I thought was cool.” She reckons she’s performed in over 70 plays, most of them near-invisible, since landing her first professional job at 19.

Sokolovic and Darren Pettie in Detroit.Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Now that she’s gaining professional traction, Sokolovic has plenty of dream roles (“I’m 32, I think Juliet is slowly slipping away; I think that ship may have sailed”), but life has taught her not to get overattached to any big plan. As for her love life, she says she’s currently “dating a play called Detroit.” Which is an affair unto itself. “Sometimes I still look over and say, ‘That’s Amy fuckin’ Ryan,’ ” she says. She’s about to elaborate when we’re accosted by an apparently homeless gentleman bellowing the admonishment “Stop looking for a husband!”

“Well,” answers Sokolovic, ever willing to engage. “I gave up five years ago.” But the relationship counselor has already lurched off, and Sokolovic has barely slowed down. “A long time ago, I stopped making plans about where I was gonna end up. I just kinda know when it’s the right thing. I will say I have often fantasized about moving to Montana. Which is ironic, because I was there, and that’s where I decided to come to New York. Who knows?” She says she’s a bundle of nerves—which will come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen her onstage, where she appears eerily self-possessed. It’s okay, she says. The nerves, the uncertainty, they sustain her. “I hope it doesn’t go away,” she says merrily, putting one broken boot in front of the other. “I hope it never goes away!”

Detroit’s Finest