Seated on a wooden bench on a muggy Tuesday evening, a few blocks from Gramercy Park, actress Lily Rabe looks like your quintessential young, hip New York girl. There’s the Alexander Wang T-shirt she pairs with skinny black J Brand jeans and a Roarke necklace; the casual, mussed side ponytail of blonde hair, and the slash of bold, berry lipstick worn as nonchalantly as Blistex. And she has the exuberant, emphatic speech to match.
Al Pacino, her co-star in the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of “The Merchant of Venice,” is “one of the great, great, great actors.” The play’s director, Daniel Sullivan, is “brilliant, brilliant.” Her role of Portia is a “powerful, powerful character.”
But then there is Rabe’s voice, a throaty, rich alto, more often heard from the mouths of Forties-era broads than fresh-faced 27-year-olds. It proves the perfect foil to her adjective-heavy delivery and something of a metaphor for her ability to inhabit simultaneously the part of ingenue and leading lady.
It is a skill that has served her well: just five years after graduating from Northwestern University, Rabe, the daughter of playwright David Rabe and actress Jill Clayburgh, has amassed an impressive list of theater credits, including star turns in the Kathleen Turner-directed “Crimes of the Heart,” “Steel Magnolias” and last year’s critical hit “The American Plan.” And it was that same mix of old soul and youth that made Sullivan handpick her for Portia in “Merchant of Venice,” opening today at the Delacorte Theater.
“I envisioned Portia as played by Lily Rabe. That was the only thinking I did about the role,” says Sullivan. “Lily embodies the character’s contradictions: she is both mature and girlish, funny and deadly serious, strong minded and pliant.”
For her part, Rabe has always hankered after Portia, a wealthy girl on the verge of marrying whichever suitor is able to pass her late father’s screening test: choosing the correct one of three boxes.
“When she starts out, she’s really been locked up in [her home in] Belmont and her parents are dead and she’s sophisticated and wildly intelligent on the one hand, and on the other hand she’s sheltered and never been outside the gates of Belmont,” explains Rabe, sipping a takeaway cup of ginger tea. “Over the course of the play, not only does she go out into the world, but she’s confronted with things outside of anything her imagination could have even held before.”
For one, she dons drag, posing as a lawyer in the play’s famous trial.
“Brutal, brutal, brutal,” says Rabe of the emotional scene, adding: “My god, it’s always fun to dress up as a boy.”
That voice helps, too. “[It] has extraordinary strength and she can therefore, without effort, become a man,” says Sullivan.
But Rabe’s been honing her craft for years. Born on New York’s Upper West Side, she was raised in Bedford and moved to Lakeville, Conn., when she was in seventh grade. She trained in classical ballet for 10 years, stopping at the beginning of high school. Her junior year she auditioned for Beth Henley’s “The Wake of Jamey Foster,” and she was smitten.
“Listen, I was putting on plays when I was five and making my parents sit with the video camera for six hours and bossing all of my friends around, so I think I always loved performing. But it was terrifying to sort of say it out loud that I was interested in acting,” says Rabe.
Though both she and her parents were initially nervous about her chosen path, Rabe says, “I was falling fast and hard and was kind of screwed in that department.”
No need for any concern. Rabe’s career thus far would be enough to put any parents’ fears to rest. Clayburgh even offers the rare constructive critique: “Occasionally she’ll say, ‘I think that laugh could be a little bigger.’” And like any other twentysomething Manhattan professional, she is as much driven by pragmatic concerns as passion.
“Living in New York, it’s hard to pay your rent just doing theater,” says Rabe. “As long as I can pay my rent, that’s all I care about right now.”