NEW YORK — Though her stage presence might belie it, Martha Plimpton is tiny. Everything about her is miniature, even her blonde pixie cut and Clara Bow lips. But since she’s confined for the next four months to a diminutive dressing room buried deep under the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, her small stature might work in her favor. The thespian task she’s tackling, however, is no less than Herculean: playing two different characters in Tom Stoppard’s epic three-part work “The Coast of Utopia.” (In “Voyage,” which opened Sunday night, she’s Varenka Bakunin; in “Shipwreck,” opening Dec. 21, she’ll play Natasha Tuchkov, who after marriage becomes Natasha Ogarev in “Salvage,” opening Feb. 15.)
The afternoon after her 36th birthday, Plimpton is happily hunkered down in her subterranean niche, which she has transformed into a Slavic hideaway complete with a red-curtained wall and postcard-art of the actual 19th century characters on whom the play is based: the Russian political theorist Alexander Herzen and his circle of intellectuals — including the author Ivan Turgenev, the poet Nicholas Ogarev and the aristocrat-cum-anarchist Michael Bakunin.
“I don’t think I’ve even read anything that wasn’t somehow related to Russians in two or three months,” Plimpton says of her crash course in Russian history, though before this play, she admits, “I never had any interest in Russia really.” That changed with the trip the cast took to Moscow and St. Petersburg a week before rehearsals began (which she dubbed “Buttscow and St. Boobiesberg” for their well-endowed inhabitants on her MySpace page blog). Now she’s fully immersed in “nonstop research,” as well as 11-hour days in the incubator-like environment of the “Utopia” company — at full count, it numbers 44 actors playing over 70 roles, including a list sure to please fans of matinee idols: Ethan Hawke, Billy Crudup and Josh Hamilton star, as well as Jennifer Ehle, Brian F. O’Byrne, Amy Irving and Richard Easton.
“It’s almost like being at seminary,” Plimpton says. “We’re all living together and experiencing this creative process together and learning about the plays and each other.
“The closest I’ve come to experiencing something like this is with Steppenwolf,” the Chicago-based theater ensemble Plimpton joined in 1996, she continues. “I love that feeling, of being part of something larger than yourself. Each of us is a strand of DNA in this organism that we are creating together.”
This story first appeared in the November 28, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Her love of theater has paid off. In recent years, Plimpton has found more success treading the boards than appearing on screen. “I am finding that my skills are best served and best utilized in the theater, and with people who are maybe a little more outside of the mainstream of things,” she says. “I think that odd people appreciate what a person like me does.”
She still has her fans from her “Goonies” days, though, who recognize the Upper West Sider on a daily basis. “It’s wild,” she says, even though fame has its downsides. “People are always putting stuff on Gawker Stalker about how ugly I am,” she says, laughing. “It doesn’t bother me. There are worse things they could say.”