By Annette Hinkle
Polly Draper is no longer “thirtysomething.”
But since starring as Ellyn on the groundbreaking baby-boomer series two decades ago, she has found plenty to keep her occupied. Mainly, real life —including marriage, the raising of two sons and a career that has taken her well beyond acting and into the realm of writing, directing and producing.
“The Tic Code,” a 1997 film which she wrote, produced and acted in, won accolades at film festivals around the world. But it was another film which Draper wrote, produced and directed based on the musical talents of her young sons, Nat and Alex, that really put her on the map — at least in the minds of the tween set.
“The Naked Brothers Band,” a 2005 mockumentary a la “Spinal Tap,” is based on a fictional kids rock group with all the backstage angst and creative differences that go with it. The film won an audience award for family feature at the 2005 Hamptons International Film Festival and was bought by Nickelodeon, which subsequently turned it into a series.
“The writing and producing of movies came out of an urge to be creative,” explains Draper. “I got into it and I really loved doing that — running the show with all the different side balls thrown in every day. It was really exciting to me.”
These days, Nat and Alex (17 and 13 respectively) are pursuing their own successful acting careers (despite their mother’s attempts to dissuade them).
And Draper? She’s branching out once again to tread upon new territory herself.
This time it’s a one-woman show.
“My Brilliant Divorce,” a comedy by Geraldine Aaron, is Bay Street Theatre’s inaugural production of the 2012 summer season and opens May 29 in Sag Harbor. Set in England, it’s the tale of Angela, an American ex-pat, who finds herself newly single and coping with a divorce after her cad of a British husband takes off, leaving her with a mess to sort out.
For Draper, it’s a perfect role — and, as she’ll tell you, those aren’t easy to come by these days.
“My first love has always been acting,” she says. “But as I got older, the parts were getting less interesting.”
Then came the call from Matt McGrath, Draper’s friend and a fellow actor who had been tapped to direct “My Brilliant Divorce” for Bay Street. He wanted Draper to play Angela.
“When I finished reading the script, I could see it — I was acting it in my head and I knew I was hooked,” admits Draper. “I’ve never ever done a one woman show. This part is so juicy, fun and challenging.’
“And there’s no one to save me.”
Luckily, she has a friend, both onstage and off, in McGrath.
“It’s huge having a director who was an actor,” says Draper. “He understands how to talk to actors and knows what good acting is. A lot of directors know camera moves and staging, but not acting.”
And Draper has a lot of meaty material to master in “My Brilliant Divorce,” adjusting, as her character must, to the notion of reinventing herself at an “advanced age” after being dumped for a younger woman.
Despite the tragic circumstances, Draper notes this play is no tragedy.
“Angela is so incredibly funny,” says Draper. “She’s a woman who’s been married to the same man all her life and when he leaves her high and dry, she has to figure out what to do. One of the things she does, that I also do and which drives my husband crazy, is she becomes the other person when she’s telling a story.”
“I think that is part of what makes this so funny,” she adds. “She becomes all the characters that annoy her. The playwright’s been through this, and I know what it’s like too. It’s her journey out of that and into herself and every single humiliating moment that can possibly happen in that circumstance.”
“That’s what makes it so funny and relevant,” she adds.
Though playwright Geraldine Aron, who’s been working with Draper and McGrath in rehearsals in New York City, originally wrote Angela as a much older woman, she has reinvented her with Draper in mind. In this production, Angela’s in her early 50s (though she has a tendency to lie about her age).
Because it was written for British audiences there were also cultural references in the play that had to be re-worked — including the tweaking regional accents which the average American can’t discern (Draper had a dialect coach to work her through this aspect), and the addition of a joke about bad English teeth — which Brits wouldn’t understand.
For Draper, at this point the real challenge is memorizing the script in the absence of fellow actors to provide cues.
“In the olden days, the lines just came to me the first time I read the script. Now it’s really a different story … it’s terrifying,” she admits. “But this play is so funny and articulate, you don’t want to paraphrase. Sometimes that’s a motivator.”
The American Premiere of “My Brilliant Divorce” runs May 29 to June 24 (previews May 29 to 31) at Bay Street Theatre on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. The first preview on May 29 is “Pay What You Can” available after 2 p.m. at the box office. Tickets for all other shows are $56/$66. Call 725-9500 to purchase.
Top: Polly Draper in rehearsals. (Barry Gordin photo).