Two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Gina Gionfriddo’s latest play, Can You Forgive Her?, is being given its world premiere at the Huntington Theatre Company in a production directed by frequent Gionfriddo collaborator Peter DuBois.
Actress Meredith Forlenza, fresh from the Broadway revival of Noises Off, returns to the Huntington to star as Miranda, an entitled, debt-ridden beauty who has taken on a sugar daddy to help relieve her astronomical debt. It’s easy to dislike Miranda, but it’s also easy to find yourself rooting for her, something that makes the creation of Miranda all the more exciting.
Here, Forlenza talks about creating Miranda, making her Broadway debut at Studio 54 in Pal Joey, and her unforgettable Christopher Walken moment.
Miranda must be such a fun role to play.
She is a fun role to play. I quite enjoy playing badly behaved women.
What do you think is at the heart of Miranda’s ways?
Well, I think she’s someone who has pretty much gotten herself into the unfortunate position she’s in because she’s someone who refuses to take responsibility for things. It’s always not her fault. That’s pretty much how I’ve gone about justifying all of her, what should we call them, more difficult character traits. [laughs] Everything that’s happened to her is not her fault, and in her mind she’s doing the best she can. I think that’s highlighted by the other female character in the play, Tanya, who is taking absolute responsibility for the choices she’s made and is working her ass off and sacrificing to fix things. So that’s been a fun juxtaposition to play with, those women on stage together.
Miranda’s pretty entitled.
She is. I think she feels very victimized, though. She feels that she’s been very wronged. She grew up a certain way and then suddenly the rug got pulled out from under her, and she really thinks she’s been wronged at a lot of different turns. Part of the way she grew up with money not being a problem remotely, and she doesn’t have a concept of reality, really.
I know people just like her.
Yeah, everybody knows a Miranda! [laughs]
As I read the play, I found myself almost understanding her choices. I mean, what was she supposed to do, she wanted to go to a school where she could have hot chocolate in front of a fireplace!
Yeah, she wanted to go to the school that her friends were going to. And the debt thing is a very on-topic problem right now. My best friend from college had crushing debt when we left Northwestern, and she took the Tanya approach and got herself pretty much out of it by now, and she’s amazing, but I think it’s a very real thing that kids going through college think, “I’ll just get a job after this and it’ll be fine”.
Did you address Miranda’s likability at all during the rehearsal process?
Yeah, we talked about it a little bit. I think she’s someone that you love to hate, so she’s sort of a delightful character to laugh at because she’s so outrageous. I think that’s part of the reason that she’s able to survive the way she does: There’s something magnetic about her, but there’s deep darkness under that magnetism and she’s someone that really keeps her demons at bay with humor and with sarcasm and, in her mind, telling it like it is. But what I think she’s really doing is trying not to deal with the reality of her life, not to “go dark,” as she says in the play; not to really look at herself in the mirror and be truthful about what’s going on. So we talked about her likability a bit, but Gina has done such a phenomenal job of writing her that when you read the script you know her immediately. I think the key with her is the audience loving to hate her and kind of rooting for her in a weird way as the hours go by and more and more alcohol is consumed. But yeah, Gina has done such an amazing job of crafting her that the script pretty much took care of it. Gina is one of my favorite writers, so I’m thrilled to be in a world premiere of hers. It’s all on the page, so it was just a matter of bringing to life what she created already.
What has it been like creating Miranda in this world premiere?
It’s been freaking awesome! I’ve admired Gina’s work for years and years and years, so I feel incredibly lucky. I’ve been very lucky in my career to have worked on a few brand-new plays and being able to be in the room with a writer before the play is published and have some kind of input on what ultimately becomes the play, it feels like a very important responsibility and I just feel very, very lucky to be a part of it. The other thing is, it gives you a kind of freedom because the role only exists on paper, it hasn’t been performed before, so there’s a sort of strange freedom there.
What do you think the play is trying to say?
Something along the lines of, “You can only run from your demons for so long.” Every time I think about it as we work on it more and more, things emerge, but I think that’s a big theme in the play. There’s something about the narratives that we create for ourselves, because I think Miranda is someone who has created this narrative and it’s how she gets up in the morning. I often wonder what happens to Miranda. I can see it going in a couple different directions. It’s probably not good, whatever happens to her, but—yeah. I don’t know. I change my mind all the time about what happens to her after that night.
I picture her like Charlize Theron in the movie Young Adult.
Oh my God, yes, yes, yes! That’s so funny, you’re totally right.
Tell me about making your Broadway debut in Pal Joey.
It was such a lovely gift for an actor just starting out to be able to be in that environment, watching these phenomenal performers work on a Broadway play and just be able to see them do their job. I learned a lot during that and it was great. Martha Plimpton, Stockard Channing, it was a bunch of amazing women, and I was able to just sit and absorb them.
Are there any hidden relics backstage at Studio 54 from the club days? I’ve always wondered that.
[laughs] You know, I don’t know of any, but there must be something, don’t you think? I would like that myth to stay alive. That place feels like there are ghosts in it. I don’t know if there are or not, but it’s such a special, cool place. I loved being in that theater.
What was it like working with Christopher Walken?
Oh my God, so cool. It was very cool. I was understudying Zoe Kazan, and I went on one night because she hurt her back, and he was so kind and supportive. There’s a moment in the play where Christopher Walken is pouring gasoline all over her and I remember—it was my first time stepping out on a Broadway stage in a big role—and I have this very clear memory of looking up at Christopher Walken’s face and thinking, “This can’t be my life, it’s too good,” as I’m handcuffed to this radiator and he’s pouring gasoline on me. [laughs] Hopefully my career will be full of cool moments like that, but I can’t imagine one that would really top that. It’s pretty great.