“It’s like going to the Bahamas,” Offerman explains, after microwaving a plate of lamb chops, broccoli and other greens — a meal that his character Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation might consume — following a photo shoot at the Odyssey Theatre. “It’s very luxurious to get to dissect and pore over one script over the course of six weeks.”
“We’ve been looking for a play to do together for a while,” says Will & Grace icon Mullally, noshing on her own home-brought carnivore entree of sausage and salad. “But we deliberately wanted to do a play to sort of put the brakes on everything else, you know?”
“So we can’t leave town,” adds Offerman, who ironically is flying out the next morning to tape a segment on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon touting Somebody Up There Likes Me, the Bob Byington-directed indie film he produced and stars in with Mullally. And that’s before performing his American Ham comedy/variety show, described as a “hilarious evening of Anecdotes, Songs and Woodworking Tips with minor nudity,” later that night in Monmouth, New Jersey.
“I can’t do a gazillion projects at once anymore,” Mullally admits — but she’s still a multi-tasker. “A great writer friend of mine got an ABC pilot, so this weekend I’m doing the pilot presentation. I need to learn all these lines. Next weekend I’m going to New Orleans to do one of my [Seth Rudetsky – hosted] Broadway concerts. Then we are trying to learn this play plus about 19 other things apiece.”
Some of those 19 other things for Mullally include recurring roles on Childrens Hospital, Parks and Recreation, Happy Endings and Bob’s Burgers, a new show called Axe Cop, promoting indie movie Toy’s House at Sundance (now called Kings of Summer with a May/June release) or writing a half hour comedy pilot for IFC.
She also fronts a girl band called Nancy and Beth with actress/singer Stephanie Hunt (Friday Night Lights; How to Live With Your Parents the Rest of Your Life). The two met on Somebody Up There Likes Me, have performed locally at Largo and just opened for Offerman at the Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco the previous weekend. The trio stars in a video alongside Amy Poehler, Adam Scott and Alison Brie called Pussy & Weed promoting the Austin-based film.
Meanwhile, Offerman has been busy appearing in films such as Casa De Mi Padre, 21 Jump Street, Smashed and Gay Dude plus Cody Diablo’s upcoming directorial debut Paradise. Not to mention appearing on his series, writing a Parks and Rec script, doing American Ham gigs, fielding TV/film offers for himself and Megan, plus plying his trade as a master woodworker in his Offerman Woodshop.
“We haven’t been out to dinner with each other in a long time,” Offerman explains.
“We haven’t been out to any theater here in a long time,” Mullally admits. “I’m just going to confess that right now.”
A Naked Guy Called Gable
It is a sunny but windy Wednesday afternoon when Mullally and Offerman arrive in the Odyssey Theatre’s back parking lot to do a photo shoot on its patio for LA STAGE Times. The two are here to promote Sharr White’s two-hander Annapurna, directed by longtime friend and Evidence Room artistic director Bart DeLorenzo, who is also on hand.
At 54, Mullally is rocking magenta hair and hip glasses, a leopard-print skirt topped by a long fuzzy vest over a cream sweater with butterflies, which is layered over a long-sleeved white shirt. Her shoes are Chanel-style beige pumps with a black toe. Offerman, 42, sports a scruffier look in a blue T-shirt featuring a lumber company logo, khaki pants and straight guy hair. They arrive entourage-free, and Mullally’s done her own make-up in advance. Hunt is on site to shoot some Nancy and Beth photos as well. All three will change into various outfits including formal wear for the outdoor patio location.
The comedy couple are game for anything. They stand next to a Weber grill in formal outfits holding hot dogs and beer for a shot conceived with photographer Eric Schwabel. Annapurna takes place in a dilapidated trailer in Paonia, Colorado with a view of Mount Gunnison. This was their perverse take on it. “There’s nothing worse than a still of two actors on a set in a play,” says Offerman. “This is so much more fun.”
Offerman is low-key and polite in a gallant old-school way. He asks Mullally if he should go put on his “Gable” look, as in Clark, while she and Hunt strike poses. He returns in a black tux with his hair Brylcreemed into a ’30s-style ‘do that indeed makes him look a bit like the Gone With the Wind star. He returns at another point with a Gibson guitar to softly serenade the group with songs ranging from “King of the Road” to “Bye Bye Li’l Sebastian“, while Hunt and Mullally add harmony.
“Stephanie and I have a bit of a one-brain situation happening and it’s really cool,” Mullally explains. “I’ve only had that a couple of times in my career. Of course Nick and I have that kind of connection and I had that with Sean Hayes on Will & Grace, but we don’t really have to talk about it. We just do it at the same time.”
“True,” acknowledges Hunt, who plays the ukulele and writes her own songs. Mullally had asked to hear them during a car ride from Austin to Oklahoma to visit Mullally’s mom. “I said, Okay, I’m going to sing this song I wrote, but you have to sing this one part with me because it doesn’t work unless there is another voice. When I do this, you are going to do that. The moment that we started singing together it was just like, wait a second.”
Offerman sometimes performs with Nancy and Beth around the country at venues ranging from UCLA’s Royce Hall to NYC’s The Town Hall, where they taped the show for a future TV special. He explains one of the act’s inspirations — “We love Prairie Home Companion and I really look up to Garrison Keillor. When we do a show together, [American Ham plus Nancy and Beth], it feels the most like that sense of full-value variety, you know? Music and humor. It’s 10 times the show. First of all, it’s kind of embarrassing following them because they are way more entertaining than me. These two beautiful women singing gorgeously and dancing and then I come out. I’m like, ‘All right, now I’m just going to talk for a long time. Sorry, we’ll bring those pretty ladies back after me.’”
Later, Mullally vamps in a long black evening gown in ways that are at times reminiscent of her Will & Grace character Karen, while Offerman does his best leading man pose. The caring in their 13-year relationship and nearly 10-year marriage is on display when she notices he has a shine on his face during shooting. She breaks to get make-up powder and pats him over various shiny spots. The two are veterans of Chicago and LA small theaters with little or no budgets.
They met during the 2000 Evidence Room production of Charles Mee’s The Berlin Circle, directed by David Schweizer at what is now the Bootleg Theater. Defiant Theatre founder and LA transplant Offerman was cast as the comedic sidekick to Mullally’s Pamela Dalrymple, a Sutton Place socialite a la Pamela Harriman. The rest is history, and the course of their relationship was recently outlined from start to finish in New York magazine’s Vulture website.
Mullally was the subject of the third cover story of LA STAGE magazine in March 2001, and the interview was conducted in her then-Harper Avenue duplex in WeHo. Will & Grace was just taking off, and at the end of the two-hour interview, Offerman showed up. Who was this guy kissing her in the hallway?
“Oh my god, right!” she recalls when reminded of that day. “I was thinking the same thing.”
She looks over at him. “It was this guy. How did you get in here? He looks vaguely familiar…”
“I insinuated myself,” smiles Offerman.
In 2008, Mullally did her second interview with the now online LA STAGE Times. She had just turned 50, starred in Young Frankenstein on Broadway the year before and was about to do Adam Bock’s The Receptionist at the Odyssey, directed by DeLorenzo. Annapurna marks not only her return to this theater but Offerman’s as well.
“When I got to LA in ’97,” Offerman explains, “thankfully this great Chicago company called Roadworks out of Northwestern was bringing a celebrated production of Mike Leigh’s Ecstasy here” (to the Odyssey, opening in January 1998). “I have no idea how it came to pass. That was above my pay grade. But they had to replace a guy and they said, ‘Well, it’s a naked drunk guy.’ So someone said, ‘Nick Offerman is in LA’ and they said, ‘Done.’ And it was so fun. It was such a good show, such a great cast and it was over in the L-shaped theater on the end.”
The play opened with Offerman seated on the down stage corner “buck naked and guzzling two cans of real Guinness.
“Then I would bumble around and find a pair of electric blue bikini underwear because it was set in like ’79. I’d put those on and then the play would start properly, and I would attack Rachel Singer, playing the lead, in an ursine way. One night, an elderly lady sitting very close to the front corner when the lights came up, very clearly whispered to her compatriot, ‘I need to get my glasses’.” He starts to laugh heartily as Mullally joins in.
“Probably my mom!” she exclaims. “It sounds like something my mom would say.”
“I’ll never forget that,” he adds. “She gave me pause.”
Today it was announced that Mary-Louise Parker will star in the fall Broadway premiere of The Snow Geese by Annapurna playwright Sharr White and directed by Dan Sullivan. White recently enjoyed a successful Broadway run with The Other Place at Manhattan Theatre Club starring Laurie Metcalf and daughter Zoe Perry, which ended in March. Both are friends with Mullally and Offerman. Mullally considers watching Metcalf’s famous Balm in Gilead performance for Steppenwolf Theatre Company a seminal theater experience, while Offerman performed with the renowned Chicago troupe.
Annapurna was commissioned by South Coast Repertory and appeared in SCR’s 2011 Pacific Playwrights Festival. It premiered at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco in November 2011 and was a 2012 finalist for the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award. Other White plays include Six Years, which premiered at the 30th-anniversary Humana Festival of New American Plays and was produced around the country. Sunlight was another South Coast Rep commission and subsequently received a National New Play Network rolling world premiere.
Annapurna is the story of a formerly married couple, both of them in their mid-50s. Ulysses is a recovering alcoholic who was once a Western cowboy-poet and English professor, while Emma is an “urbane, often fierce, always protective New Englander” (according to the character description in the script) who left 20 years ago with their son. Ulysses and Emma have not seen or talked to each other since then, until she unexpectedly shows up at the door of his run-down trailer in the Colorado mountains.
White says the impetus for the play came from observing the heightened intimacy a couple he knew shared when the husband was terminally ill with emphysema. Years later, he read a New York Times piece that “profiled estranged couples who come back together when one or the other is ill.” He wanted to pay tribute to the former while building a story around the latter.
Mullally wanted to return to the Odyssey after The Receptionist and had searched for a play to do with Offerman for several years. It never occurred to either that they might find a two-hander. The Odyssey’s artistic director Ron Sossi read a review of Annapurna’s Magic Theatre premiere and asked literary manager Sally Essex-Lopresti to obtain a copy. Both liked it and discussed the piece with associate artistic director Beth Hogan. The Odyssey was granted the rights, and Hogan told DeLorenzo that this might be a good vehicle for the couple.
“Nick and I both liked it, but I wasn’t 100% until we read it out loud,” says Mullally. “We kept trying to schedule a time where we could just find two hours to read the play and we just couldn’t do it. Scheduled it, canceled, schedule it, cancel. Finally Bart and Beth came over at some ridiculously late hour like 10 [pm] or something and we read through it. That’s when I think we were 100% sold. The way that the dramatic elements of the play are modulated is something I don’t think you can really get a feel for entirely until you read it out loud.”
(Click here to read a Q&A interview with White about the characters, working with married celebrities on the play and why his family history led it to be set in Colorado.)
Mullally and Offerman certainly aren’t the first celebrity couple to appear together on stage. In fact they appeared once before in an Evidence Room production of Mayhem in 2003. But while Mullally and Offerman perform regularly in public venues, are there any concerns that audiences are coming to see what they reveal about their private relationship via their characters on stage?
“We’ve worked together on so many different things,” replies Mullally. “I think for both of us it’s really just about the storytelling, so whatever is required. Thank god, the dynamic between Ron and Tammy on Parks and Rec does not spring from our real-life marriage. I don’t think that the dynamic between the two people in this play springs from our real-life marriage either, although you could certainly argue that we are playing these roles, so there are aspects of us that we are bringing…
“Would you please…” interrupts Offerman slowly with mock menace.
Mullally turns to him and says dramatically, “Shut the fuck up.”
They laugh. “He’s trying to be abusive as a joke,” she says.
“It’s really fun,” he offers, about playing opposite each other. “We are lucky because we have a healthy relationship and so it’s fun in a play like this or when we do Parks and Rec. We get to unload on each other emotionally. It’s like something a therapist would have you do like, ‘Let’s do role-playing where you are a terrible drunk and you are just horribly screaming at your wife.’”
“It’s true,” adds Mullally. “We were just saying in the car last night that we are kind of secretly thrilled that we are the only people in the cast!” She laughs and says in a diva voice, “You don’t have to deal with any of these annoying others! It’s just really nice, because obviously we have a shorthand and we have a shorthand with Bart so it’s a great little triangle.”
“At this point it’s crazy shorthand,” DeLorenzo concurs. The trio has done numerous shows together as part of the Evidence Room. “We have all these shared jokes together, we’ve seen all the same things together…and there’s a lot of trust. That’s what’s so wonderful about working with people who you’ve been in the trenches with so many times over so many years. It’s deeper. I have to say that it’s something like love, which is an extreme form of trust. It’s just very very special.”
“I love working with Bart,” smiles Mullally. “He’s so laid back but he is so smart. He’s a really good director and never loses his cool. I love working at the Odyssey. I had such a good time doing The Receptionist here. I love this [theater company] has been loping along for 40 years.”
“They should have a parade for the Odyssey Theatre,” adds Offerman. “It’s such a quietly established foundation block and has been doing great solid work.”
“I love the no-frills aspect of it, too,” stresses Mullally. “It’s kind of like indie movies. I think we would rather do an indie where everybody is pitching in and everybody is on a level playing field or a play at the Odyssey where it’s just simple. Instead of some big network television show where there’s too many cooks in the kitchen or some big studio movie where you don’t have a creative freedom or a Broadway show where there is so much tension and it’s only about the Tonys.”
So if Mullally were offered another Broadway show, would she do it?
“I don’t know,” she sighs. “I think right now the landscape has changed for us because the last time I did a Broadway show was Young Frankenstein in 2008. It was before Nick was on Parks and Rec and became an international superstar.”
“And an international male catalogue model,” deadpans Offerman.
“That’s right,” she laughs. “We were a little more free and easy and could pack up our poodles in our old kit bag and get a month-to-month rental in New York. We can’t really do that right now because we’ve got more stuff going on. I don’t know that I would be down for another big musical because it’s a year or more commitment. I think I would love to do a play, but the ideal situation would be if Nick and I could do something together in a limited run. Like this Odyssey show.”
Celebrity is a Service Business
With their 10-year anniversary coming up, what’s a recipe for their success? Their rule is to never spend more than two weeks apart, but they’ve done a spate of movies and toured together with their acts. Not many couples can balance the personal and professional. Surprisingly, Mullally’s answer is theater.
“I think it’s both that we have a really solid relationship and we are best friends coupled with our mutual theater backgrounds,” she says. “Our theater backgrounds independent of one another and together. Coming from theater and having that be your training ground or your proving ground just sets you up better to have a career in the entertainment industry because it gives you discipline.”
During her Will & Grace years Mullally says you could instantly tell which guest star had a theater training.
“The people who came on who had a theater background were fine, “ she remembers. “But we also had so many big movie stars. We had people faint and throw up, or turn white as a sheet and get really clammy before the show because they were absolutely paralyzed with fear. They’d never done anything in front of a live audience.”
Offerman doesn’t have theater veterans on his show, except Amy Poehler, who comes from improv and sketch comedy. The two knew each other in Chicago.
“A few cast members sort of came up through the ranks of her Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York but really not a lot of theater experience,” he explains. “It’s funny. When people hear that I am from Chicago, they immediately assume that I’m from Second City or that I’m a stand-up. I’ve never set foot in Second City. I knew Amy in the early ’90s only socially because coincidentally one of our company members lived in a house with one of her company members so we saw each other at parties.”
A reformed theater snob, Offerman says he’s come to appreciate the value of improv or sketch comedy.
“You dive so deeply into your legit theater life that you rarely get to even see your best friend’s production of Hamlet because you are too busy doing your own show. At that time, I remember thinking, so let me get this straight. You make stuff up in front of people in a bar. Okay, well, that sounds great. I’m changing the world here with this Harold Pinter play so you have fun. It took me a long time to realize what a legitimate career path it was.”
“As I mount a production of Coriolanus for seven people in Reseda, yeah,” he adds. “Like I’m doing great work.”
Four years ago Mullally railed against people wanting fame for its own sake. She said she hadn’t come to terms with the notion of fame or celebrity but that people needed to be in it to make something good for the audience.
“That still holds true,” she says. “There is that double bind. The nice part about having some kind of recognition is that it does open doors to other things and other projects. Working with good people. That kind of thing. At least in my case with Will & Grace, where we made a lot of money, it allows you the luxury to do 99-seat theater in Los Angeles for…what is it, $7? I forget. I wouldn’t be able to do that if it hadn’t been for my so-called celebrity because I’d probably have a regular job somewhere to pay my rent. A real job.”
“I think something that Megan and I share is that we are not in the business for the flashy parts of it,” Offerman concurs. “They’re wonderful sort of side bonuses, but at the end of the day we’re just happy if we can come do a play. We hope that we just get to keep doing good work. Something like Ron Swanson is nice because it brings more good work, it brings more good writing across my desk and so hopefully we’ll get to continue to have these opportunities. But I think generally I would rather stay the woodworker theater guy who worked on a TV show for a time.”
“The notion of celebrity is gross to me,” adds Mullally. “The fact is we are really in a service industry. My service, I think, is to provide an entertainment of some sort for an audience and so I try to do that to the best of my abilities. It seems like that’s how everybody should feel about it but people don’t.”
“This American Ham tour afforded me the treat of walking around the old neighborhoods that I’ve lived in — Chicago and Seattle and New York — to check out my old haunts,” explains Offerman. “I can’t really enjoy them anymore because it’s exactly where the kind of people who watch my show go. You know, where smart people with a sense of humor congregate?” he laughs. “So my favorite places are kind of ruined, because I can’t just go get a burger and beer. I’ve become an object of attention.”
Offerman admits he never dreamed he would get a part that would attain this level of fame and understands the fleeting nature of its popularity.
“I definitely work hard to maintain my wood shop. I know that the heat of this moment will pass and at some point I’ll be left with my tools once again and say, ‘Well, that was fun. Now let’s get back to this Nakashima dining table.’”
Annapurna, Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. 90069. Opens April 20. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. (also Wed 8 pm on 5/9, 5/22 and 5/29) Through June 9. Tickets: $25-30. www.odysseytheatre.com.