Turn of the screwball

Character actor Harriet Harris revels in playing hard-driving dames.

DO YOU FEEL A DRAFT? Harris, left, and Colin compare manuscripts.

DO YOU FEEL A DRAFT? Harris, left, and Colin compare manuscripts. Photograph: Joan Marcus

Harriet Harris is the kind of actor you know even if you don’t think you do. Chances are you relished her cunning, scheming agent Bebe on Frasier. Or perhaps you admired her wiles as Felicia Tilman on Desperate Housewives. Meanwhile, New York stage hounds still talk about her playing all the female roles in Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey, and those who saw Thoroughly Modern Millie cannot wipe her Mrs. Meers, with her fake Chinese accent, from their memory—nor would they want to. (Mrs. Meers got Harris a Tony, too.)

Now, the Texas-born actor, 52, costars in John Van Druten’s Old Acquaintance, a chestnut that hadn’t roasted on Broadway since its creation in 1940. Harris’s character, Mildred Watson Drake, is a prolific author of popular trashy novels, whose long-standing friendship with fellow writer Katherine Markham (Margaret Colin) goes through a rocky patch. As Mildred, Harris proves once again that she’s among the most gifted American comediennes of our time—she can milk a laugh out of any two words, and her physical-slapstick skills are are worthy of Rosalind Russell in her prime. TONY caught up with her before a preview performance.

On paper, Mildred isn’t necessarily very nice. How did you approach her?

I think she is sympathetic—she’s just hard to deal with. One of my friends says that I’m attracted to the losers, to the eccentric parts. But to me, the person with obvious character flaws is always going to be more fun to play. Mildred’s a challenged person [Laughs], but there’s something there.

The second act is full of very funny bits that cut off just in time—and it’d be easy to push them too far.

I think I do sometimes. [Laughs] When we began rehearsals, I described something I wanted to do with the phone to [director Michael Wilson], and he said, “I think that’s going to blow the top off the play. Let’s just see in previews.” It got to stay in, which I’m very glad about. But I don’t want people to come in the theater and think, So what is she going to do with the phone? [Laughs]

Why this recent affinity for period material such as Millie,The Man Who Came to Dinner and now Old Acquaintance?

After I left Juilliard, I couldn’t find a job doing anything but Shakespeare or Molière, and I thought, Jeez, it sure would be nice to play somebody who wasn’t in some kind of mop cap! Then I started working with Paul Rudnick, and that was very contemporary. But recently I’ve gone back to putting on a period outfit and seeing if I can pass.

Part of what appeals to me is that optimism that came out of stress: The ’30s comedies understood desperation. That sort of rhythm pleases my ear and it makes me happy to play it. But once you start doing it quickly and technically, you stop being funny and you’ve gone too far.

Most people know you for pushing it pretty far on Frasier.

They always gave me a lot to do, but then they’d go, “Now let’s get her out of here!” [Laughs] I was like some sort of Pac-Man that would come in and gobble everything up. The first episode I ever did, the director said, “I love what you’re doing, but please, I’m begging you: Don’t make me say ‘Do less.’ ”

Did anybody ever say it after that?

Somebody once told me, “I’m not sure, that may be over-the-top,” and I said, “Oh, I don’t know—my top is very high. If it’s over your top, then I’ll pull it back, but it’s not over mine, so let’s live with it for a while.”

The top was stratospheric in Millie.

Oh, that was absurd! That was so much fun. That could have gone so wrong if Francis Jue and Ken Leung, my partners in crime, hadn’t been game. I went to them and asked, “May I do this accent? I know it’s offensive, but is it funny?”

Had you ever sung before?

[Explodes with laughter] I love the question! [Imitates hapless interviewer] “Errr…has it ever been done? Will it ever be done again? Are they ever going to let you do this again?” So many things were happening at the time, I just got used to the idea that I was doing a musical. Every night the overture would start and I’d think, I can’t believe I’m on a Broadway stage. It was a kid dream come true. I thought I was going to be a big musical-theater star, then at 15 I realized, Everybody in choir sings better than I do, I can’t dance: I don’t see what my future in musical theater will be! But I got to do Millie, then after doing Glass Menagerie [at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis], I thought I needed to get another dream, because it’s so lovely when you do them. I oughta think of something I wanna do.

Old Acquaintance is at the American Airlines Theatre.