Sympathy for the devils

Victoria Clark tries to do unto others in the morality play Prayer for My Enemy.

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NO MORE MS. NICE GUY Clark sheds her affable image.

NO MORE MS. NICE GUY Clark sheds her affable image. Photograph: Joan Marcus

When Victoria Clark won a 2005 Tony Award for her sublime performance as a mother learning to love and let go in The Light in the Piazza, she had the help of director Bartlett Sher and playwright Craig Lucas. Clark has teamed up with them again—but instead of a musical that engulfs audiences in the romantic locale of Italy, Prayer for My Enemy is a drama that examines crises in our own country.

“Any opportunity to work with Craig and Bart is gold,” Clark, 49, says. “You’re guaranteed that you’re going to emerge a more interesting actor and you’re guaranteed to have deep material to explore. Bart really sets up an atmosphere that’s very creative and open. The rehearsal room is always lively, full of ideas, full of passion.”

Clark’s post-Tony oeuvre has included a solo CD, Fifteen Seconds of Grace; performances with City Center Encores! (Juno); and appearances Off Broadway (The Marriage of Bette and Boo). In January, she’ll take part in Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series, but she hasn’t been on Broadway since Piazza closed. “I truly believe that Piazza is probably like the greatest musical ever written,” she asserts. “I didn’t want to jump into another revival. As an actor, I don’t want to just keep doing the same stuff I always do. We have to retreat and nourish our spirits and rest and figure out what we want to say next.”

And so her latest acting challenge is Dolores, a fiery, frustrated New Yorker stranded upstate caring for her ailing mother. For much of the play, Dolores is removed from the rest of the cast, which includes Tony winner Michele Pawk and Spring Awakening’s Jonathan Groff. Clark delivers monologues that alternate with scenes of family strife for her neighbors, the Noone clan. Son Billy (Groff), a veteran of the Iraq War, has unresolved feelings for a friend who’s now married to his sister, and dad Austin (Skipp Sudduth) clings desperately to sobriety the night the Yankees go down to the Red Sox in the 2004 playoffs—an evening that radically changes the Noones’ lives and Dolores’s. “Vicki is the perfect surprise in this part,” Lucas says. “Dolores has a huge amount of deep-seated rancor, and it’s not what you expect of Vicki—which is nice, nice, nice, nice, nice!”

Clark found herself exploring the drastic measures that grief can provoke in a person like Dolores who, besides dealing with her mother’s decline, has a lackluster job and is planning a wedding to a less-than-loving fiancé. “She’s marginalized, she’s angry and she’s sitting on a mountain of rage,” agrees the vivacious performer, who’s known for riding her bike to the theater. “It’s not that hard to slip into that part of the brain where the moral compass is skewed. People can make terrible decisions, even when they think it’s for the best, like stealing something because they’re really hungry. No one ever does something they know is wrong.”

Preachers, politicians and psychiatrists may have a different view on the nature of wrongdoing, but the play, and Clark, aims for a more empathetic approach. As an antidote to resentment, one character advises, “Somebody hurts you, you pray for them.” And Clark, who says she’s noticed a shift in mood at rehearsals since the election, considers our ability to forgive, both as individuals and as a country, one of the play’s dominant themes. “Under the most extreme circumstances,” she wonders, “can we balance the human part of us that wants to snap and create some violent act with the equally human part of us that wants to start over and allow forgiveness to replace rage? I really thought at the deepest level, Piazza was about redemption and forgiveness, too.”

Besides acting, the Dallas native is also a voice and musical-theater teacher and the mother of a 14-year-old son. In those capacities, she’s seen the effects war and terror have had on the younger generation. “My conservatory students were 11, 12, 13 when September 11 happened,” she says. “They don’t remember when you could run through security and jump on a plane in about ten minutes, or when traveling in Europe was like, ‘Yay, you’re an American.’ They’ve grown up in this cynical, kind of fragile country, and it didn’t used to be that way. Now the resonance of the play is changing. I think we’re all going to claim that pride again.”

Prayer for My Enemy is at Playwrights Horizons.

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