Maria Dizzia: Extremist

     Through the years, many actors, as well as those who love them and watch them, have considered better terms for what they do. "Acting," Marlon Brando said, implied "trickery, fraud, gestures to convey what should be felt. 'Acting,' he insisted, was a front in an art that cannot have such things. Brando would have preferred to have been called an empath, but only if the material challenged or pleased him. Otherwise, he said, just call him an actor.

     Kim Stanley and Geraldine Page both believed in the extremity of acting, something that was conveyed to them by Tennessee Williams, who discussed it with his preferred director Elia Kazan. As Tennessee told me, in 1982, "The artist lives--or should live--in a perpetual state of extremity. This is harsh and frightening territory, but it is where art and magic and wonder exist, so we continually head for it if we are brave and generous and curious and dissatisfied with the answers we've been given to the big questions. My life, and the lives of others, doesn't mean anything to me if I can't throw them in a sort of artistic relief, at which point I can see the outlines, the shadows, the curve or the arc of a life, a moment, a memory. My life is defined by the sounds and smells and images that existed at particular moments in my life, moments of emotional extremity, and I can only make sense of them if an artist, a creative extremist, can remind me of my mother--how she smelled, how she sounded, what was on her radio when she died--and allow me to gain a necessary objectivity to write about my life. All of our lives need this definition. It is why we need and crave the many manifestations of art, which is to say extremity."

Tennessee Williams felt that the great actors should be called extremists of emotion, and one lives among us. Her name is Maria Dizzia.

Here are some examples of her extremity:

     In Antonio Campos' film Christine, which takes us into the bleached-out 1970s of television and explores the on-air suicide of  news anchor Christine Chubbuck, Dizzia is a stalwart friend, a dutiful employee at the mid-sized, middle-brow television station where Chubbuck wants very much to matter and to make a difference. There is great empathy from Dizzia in her scenes, but you can also sense some relief from her character that she is not as devoted, driven, and needy as Chubbuck: You can feel her clinging to her normality in the shadows of the on-air talent, the newsroom battles, the quest for happiness and fulfillment and self-actualization.  Dizzia allows us to feel safe and, at times, superior to Chubbuck, while the excellent J. Smith Cameron, as her mother, allows us to feel concern and incompetence in the face of fate. Dizzia's character, Jean, feels as if she, too, has read The Peter Principle and How To Be Your Own Best Friend; she may even have looked into therapy or gotten high to rise above the mundane lives that seem to populate the film. Primarily, however, she manages things, and gives order, and at the conclusion of the film, Campos wisely stays with Jean, as she finds comfort in a bowl of ice cream, the theme of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the background, and the satisfaction of being alive and employed.  Jean may fall for drams and false promises, not to mention the comfort of sweets, but she is alive. Effects are felt, but life goes on. A great deal is conveyed always by Dizzia, no matter the size of the role or the placement she might be given. Actors expand and glow in her presence, and Rebecca Hall will search hard for a better mirror to her own nefarious talents.

Michael C. Hall, Rebecca Hall, and Maria Dizzia in Antonio Campos' Christine.

     On the situation comedy Louie, in an episode from the second season called "Bummer/Blueberries," Dizzia is Delores, perfectly named for what is soon to ensue. Delores approaches the palpably single and needy Louie (Louis C. K.) in the hallway of the school where their children are either stuttering or suffering in math. Delores boldly suggests that they get together, and she is unafraid to admit that she is looking for sex. With his great, open face of wonder and doubt, Louie shows up for the date, goes in for a kiss, but is stopped as Delores retreats to the bathroom, disrobes, begins moisturizing her body, including her upper thighs, then stops and asks her imminent lover to head out to the drugstore for some lubricant, some condoms that are better than the veteran examples in his pocket, and an ointment for her irritated vagina. Delores insists on paying for these things herself. A miracle occurs in that Dizzia remains attractive and charming through these demands, which are rigidly and consistently offered. When Louie is in the drugstore--after asking for directions to find the soothing vaginal ointment--Delores calls and asks that he pick up some blueberries. One of the beauties of the program Louie is that we watch in amused horror as our protagonist continues to enter baffling predicaments, always with the sweetness of an innocent, a clown who got into the lion's cage by accident. Once he's back in the apartment, Delores asks him to make love to her (so to speak), but to spank her roughly, as she calls him her daddy. In the midst of this engagement, Delores begins to cry, the shriek of the isolation tank, the primal scream. Her orgasm is enlightenment, and in the next scene, the two sit at the dining-room table, Delores enjoying the blueberries, and Louie, perplexed as always, but Delores spent and relaxed. An actress I know--a very good one--studied that scene and remains unsure how Dizzia managed to skillfully and safely walk several tightropes of emotion. Watch it and see for yourself.

Laura Benanti and Maria Dizzia in Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)

     It is on the stage, however, that Dizzia most impresses. In Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), Dizzia appeared to be the model of Victorian repression, a profile out of John Singer Sargent, a waist cinched to painful smallness. Her sex life was unsatisfactory, there was no "affection" in her marriage. In a scene in which she is attached to one of the mysterious boxes from which women of a hysterical nature might find release, Dizzia has an orgasm that was achieved and delivered with the precision of a perfectly composed piece of music: She rose and wondered and flinched and doubted and then gave of herself fully. Like the scene in Louie, it was a dangerous, extreme performance, but there was no sweat on the Dresden brow of Dizzia. She found her release, but so did we: We were in good hands. Dizzia received a Tony nomination for her performance.

     This actress/extremist is in our midst now, in Steven Levenson's If I Forget, at The Roundabout through the end of April, and there are marvels within Dizzia in this play as well.  Directed with the usual incisive subtlety by Daniel Sullivan, the matchless cast lives on a set with two levels that circles and rotates, as do their stories, their lives, their futures. Watching the characters talk and argue and reminisce, you can feel that you're in the comfortable confines of a top-notch situation comedy or dramedy, but there is a current running through this house and these people, and it ultimately draws you into both the struggles this family still cannot face, as well as the receding memories that are a salvation to some and an anchor to others.  Dizzia is Sharon, the youngest child of three (her siblings are the flawless Jeremy Shamos and Kate Walsh) taking care of a failing father (Larry Brygmann, superb) and bustling about picking up prescriptions, making arrangements, welcoming people into the home she can't always keep in top-notch shape. Sharon has finally found some affection, a fact that shocks and surprises her family, as she has always been the one always cast as caretaker, docent, mendicant to all others. I would consider it a particular sin to reveal too much about his play, and I urge to see it, and you will find that Dizzia is the conflicted heart of both the play and the man who wrote it, and when she makes a decision in the play, one that we know violates everything she loves and believes, I defy you to not be shattered.

Jeremy Shamos, Kate Walsh, and Maria Dizzia in Steven Levenson's If I Forget, currently at The Roundabout/Laura Pels

     An actress like Maria Dizzia has other examples to offer, and there are more to come. This is not the conclusion of anything, but a beginning. The personal Maria Dizzia does not disappoint, and we'll look at her in a future post.

©  2017  James Grissom


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