When Joanna Gleason first stepped on stage the night I saw her in Stephen Karam's exceptional new play Sons of the Prophet (through December 23 at the Laura Pels Theatre), a woman behind me whispered to her friend, "She looks so, so good!" And she certainly does, but Gleason isn't afraid of behaving so, so badly as Gloria, a former literary power broker who has fallen from grace after publishing a fake Holocaust memoir (which Karam seems to have based on Herman Rosenblat's Angel at the Fence). "This is a desperate woman whose world has pretty much crumbled," offers Gleason in a recent phone conversation. "And desperate people do desperate things. It's not Machiavellian. Her authority has all been taken away from her, she's lost all credibility in the publishing world. And her personal life has been shattered. She's not somebody who any longer stands on two feet. And she is, how shall we say, able to stand up through using one substance or another."
Karam's play is a subtle, fresh exploration of luck (or fate), family, and the ways that physical pain might be endured. It's a delicate work that was tried out first in Boston with Gleason heading the cast before coming to New York. "They asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said, yes, yes I would," remembers Gleason. "Yes, I'll go to Boston with it, yes, yes, yes. It's incredibly worth it to go out of town because you get an audience point of view, a critic's point of view, and for yourself, you get to know what feels like underbrush and what feels like the core of the story. Stephen knows when a character doesn't need to say something. He writes in character, specifically for each character, and so when you get your re-writes it's always pretty exciting." In one of the best scenes in the play, Gloria tells her troubles to Bill (Yusef Bulos), a man of a different class who says that the worst pain cannot be spoken out loud. "It's interesting because that line goes to Bill, who's of a generation where things were kept within the family," says Gleason. "Things were known in, say, the village or the household, but it wasn't for publication, to be exploited and misinterpreted, with everybody weighing in."
Gleason has had many of her best opportunities on stage, but she has taken juicy film parts, too, and none is more memorable than her confused, rage-filled mother to Mark Wahlberg's Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights (1997). "I'd never been asked to play a part like that ever," Gleason says. "It was not something that you would go to me for, in that point in my career. I wouldn't be on the lists for those kinds of women, and yet the casting director called me in, and I read for Paul Thomas Anderson, and I think I read it exactly as you see on screen, with every expletive in place. That's how he wrote it, and I think he was all of 26 at the time. When I came in and read it, I didn't get up, I sat in a chair, the way she was when her son came home. So I read it and I think I flayed a layer of skin off him, he was so startled, because it was me doing it. And I got the part. It was a very violent scene, and Mark Wahlberg was already a pro and a young gentleman. And it's one of the pieces of work of which I'm the most proud."
(Photo: Joan Marcus)