Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Wise Beyond Her Years…Yet Still 17

                     Alexis Molnar as Lottie in "Harbor." Photo By T. Charles Erickson

What’s it like to drive around the country with your mother, living out of a van? What’s it like to not know who your father is but know only too well who your mother is: a brash, irritating, conniving, self-serving sleep-around gal who’s currently pregnant by a man whose name she can’t recall. What’s it like to be a teenager searching for a home, any home, which will provide, for the first time in your life, some safety, some sanity? These, and more, are the questions Alexis Molnar had to answer after she landed the role of Lottie in Chad Beguelin’s new comedy, “Harbor,” which is having its world premiere at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Although the play has received mixed reviews, there has been nothing but praise for Molnar’s work. One critic wrote: “The most successful performance of the evening is delivered by young Miss Molnar, who also has the best-written role in the play.” Another commented: “Lottie’s character … seems carefully drawn, and Ms. Molnar does a great job of showing her smarts and her despair.” In my review, I praised her by writing that her “poise and timing are a marvel.” Of the character Lottie, another critic wrote: “Alexis Molnar captures her portrayal perfectly.”

High praise indeed for a 17-year-old actor who, she says, “came late to acting.” I met with Molnar in one of the Playhouse’s dressing rooms after a recent matinee performance of “Harbor” to talk with her about her background, her experiences in creating Lottie, and what it felt like to be working with such seasoned professionals as Kate Nowlin, Bobby Steggert, who was nominated for a Tony for his work in “Ragtime” on Broadway, Paul Anthony Stewart, and Beguelin, a two-time Tony nominee for “The Wedding Singer” and the man who wrote the lyrics for “Elf.”

                                                             Alexis Molnar
Molnar is a Jersey girl, born in New Brunswick and raised in Bedminster. She attends Gill St. Bernard’s high school in Gladstone, N.J. “It’s the whole suburban town thingy…rich kids, preppy,” she said, curled up comfortably in a chair, her legs, sheathed in tight-fitting gray slacks, crossed beneath her in quasi-Yoga fashion. “I just started my senior year yesterday. It’s not fun going back. I like the whole social aspect of it but then there’s academics on top of this,” referring to the play. “It was such a fall back down to reality. I’m still 17 and I have to go to school.”

Molnar’s life has not been as insular as she would first lead you to believe. After all, she did spend a month attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London after her sophomore year in high school. “It was one of the most life-changing experiences I’ve ever had,” Molnar said. “It was so phenomenal, but I was really intimidated because I thought, I’m American, I’m not going to compare…even be in the same rank with these other kids, these English kids, but I pulled my way through and came out one of the top in my class. I’m really proud of myself for that.”

Being at RADA also had other benefits. Molnar laughed, rearranged her legs, and explained, “I felt sort of grounded. I don’t know if that’s the best choice of words but I felt so much more confident. RADA really brings things out in you. It just opened me up. I guess the freedom of it all. And then, my parents allowed me to be an adult in London. There was also the freedom to explore the work (RADA) gave you. I gained so many new perspectives.”

Molnar’s initial intimidation in attending RADA might have stemmed from the fact that, as noted, she believes she has come somewhat late to this particular party. “Normally, child actors start doing this when they come out of the womb, but I started professionally when I was 13 years old,” she said. “I tried to be a sports kid but I really didn’t know where I fit it. I was on the soccer team, I tried tennis, I tried track, I tried it all but I never really got the chance to fully indulge myself and enjoy it.”

However, there was another talent lurking in the background, one that would soon blossom. The seed was planted when Molnar was in the fourth grade. She got to sing a song in a school concert and after the show the music teacher commented to Molnar’s mother that her daughter had a pretty good voice. Soon, Molnar was taking singing lessons, and then acting and dance lessons.

“I didn’t know about the business then,” Molnar said – she was in fifth grade at the time – “I just thought, recreationally, something will come out of it. Then I started getting involved in workshops in the city,” she said, referring to New York City, “and I got a different insight into this crazy world of performing and that’s when I decided, this is what I want to do.”

Molnar got her first professional job appearing in a Nike commercial. It was filmed on the day of her fifteenth birthday. She recalls that before the shoot she was on the phone with her mother in tears – she was so excited. “Now, looking back on it, it was only a commercial, but for starting off so late I thought I had lucked out.”

Molnar has continued to luck out. She acted in “The Tempest” at RADA, has made numerous appearances on TV shows, appeared in minor roles in feature films and acted in high school productions of “The Dining Room,” “Tartuffe” and Kiss Me, Kate,” and is now in “Harbor.”

In just a few short years she has learned how to approach a role and make it her own, as is evidenced by her work in “Harbor.” With the help of an acting coach, who is also a friend, she does a lot of “back story” work to prepare. “First I read the whole show and then I write down everything my character says about people and what people say about my character, and then I write down qualities about myself and just build this whole entity, and then I kind of mold this all into what type of character I am, what type of girl. Then I just start thinking about things that are relatable, that can help me, that will give me some insight.”

One of the things she did in preparing to play the role of Lottie was watch “Paper Moon” and “Annie.” She also started reading Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth,” which is mentioned several times in the play and features in a touching moment when Lottie pulls back and gives her mother some undeserved dignity. But first, Molnar had to land the role, which was a process. As she remembers it, she had just returned from a trip to Florida when she got an e-mail from her manager telling her she had an audition the next day.

“Things weren’t landing,” she said, meaning that she hadn’t gotten any roles recently, so she went in without any great expectations. “I had just gotten my hair straightened and I looked all pretty and then I noticed every single girl there was 18 and older. Okay, I said to myself, I’m obviously not going to get this. I went in and I read and they liked it and they said, ‘We’ll let you know,’ and that can mean anything. About 20 minutes after, I’m walking to the car and my manager calls and tells me I have a call-back the next day to meet with Chad,” the playwright. “It’s a call-back,” Molnar said. “That’s pretty cool.

The next day she met with Beguelin, but also noticed a lot of other names on the call-back list, names of people with Broadway credits. “The other girls I saw were still much older, but I said to myself, I got a call-back so I must be doing something right.”

She obviously was doing something right. Again, the response to her call-back was, “We’ll let you know,” followed by another call-back, and then another with Beguelin and director Mark Lamos. “I read the same sides,” she said, referring to portions of the script used for auditions, “and then we just talked about the play and the kind of girl Lottie was.”

                     Director Mark Lamos. Photo by Bruce Plotkin Photography

Soon after she got a call that she was “on hold’ for the part, which meant negotiations were underway. “That lasted about two weeks and those were the most painful two weeks of my life. I just wanted to know if the deal was signed, and then, finally, the two weeks were up and I got a call that contracts were coming in.” She started rehearsals on Aug. 7.

Over the time of the rehearsals and the previews, Molnar has developed and deepened Lottie’s character. “During rehearsals I felt I had lost what was funny in certain places. I really needed an audience. With previews I kind of gained that back, of what landed where and how the audience reacted to when I said this or that. And then, Lottie and I are so related; if she was a real person I think we would be very good friends.”

Molnar said that in each performance she’s doing different things, trying to keep Lottie fresh. She wants to see what else she can discover about the character, but she feels that right now she is very comfortable with whom Lottie is.

Comfortable she has to be, for there is a pivotal, emotionally-charged scene in the second act that requires Lottie to have a phone conversation with the man who is, she believes, her real father. The audience hears only one side of the conversation, but Molnar has to, through both dialogue delivery and body language, convey a sense of what this man is saying to her. Of this extended moment one critic has written: "Her yearning phone call to her putative father is a highlight."

“At first, it was very difficult,” Molnar said, “but it felt so great the first time I did it completely off book,” meaning without script. She and an assistant director ran through the lines again and again and then she went back to her apartment and went through the lines, once again, to judge where were the best moments to insert beats – pauses – to heighten the emotion. She also envisioned the man she was speaking to. In fact, she wrote down lines for what he was saying to her that would evoke her spoken responses. Surprisingly, Beguelin had done the same thing, and it turned out that the lines were similar.

Rehearsals are done in dim, echoing theaters, but a play comes to true life only when there are bodies in the seats beyond the footlights responding to what is going on up on the stage. There’s the needed electricity. “The first preview audience we had was absolutely fantastic,” Molnar said. “They were laughing at things that we had no idea were funny. I think we rediscovered a lot of things we might have already known but forgot during the process.”

As opening night approached, Molnar decided to “Google” her fellow cast members. It was probably not the smartest thing to do. “I was so nervous,” Molnar said. “Everyone was such a big deal. I had to fight against getting really, really scared, but everybody has been so sweet and so nice, and what I like about them is that they don’t treat me as if I’m 17, they treat me like an adult and I love that. I couldn’t have asked for a better relationship with the cast. I love them all.”

                          Alexis Molnar and Kate Nowlin. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

During the “process,” as Molnar terms it, one of the hardest things to work on was her character’s relationship with Donna, her mother, played by Nowlin. Donna, as written, is a skewed force of nature, one of the walking wounded of the chemical wars, a woman who often flies off the handle, embarrassing her daughter. Molnar had to work on how to respond to the infantile rants and sulks of the “adult” in the family. “One thing I struggled with was my attitude towards Donna.” Molnar said. “I would normally use a lot of anger and Mark would always reassure me, you’re not angry with her, you’re just frustrated and you’ve had enough, but don’t play anger. Give her some of her own medicine back. That took a little bit for me to get because I would always come at her with such a force.”

                             Paul Anthony Stewart. Photo by T. Charles Erickson. 

Then there was the matter of how to deal with the final scenes of the play. Without providing a “spoiler,” suffice it to say that relationships change radically in the latter part of the play and Lottie finally finds the “harbor” for which she has been so desperately searching.

“The original way we had the last scene – everybody was crying. I was hysterical, Donna was hysterical. The first few times we did it everybody was crying. Mark finally said, ‘We need to lighten this up. There’s too much going on.’”

                           Bobby Steggert in “Harbor.” Photo by T. Charles Erickson 

Acting in “Harbor” has changed Molnar. As she puts it, she has “matured greatly.” The opportunity to work with her seasoned cast members in a venue that has, over the years, showcased just about every acting luminary in American theater is, she acknowledged, a chance of a lifetime. “This will be one of my greatest memories,” she said, “and I feel so confident in myself that I was able to accomplish this.”

And then…there is another reality. Once “Harbor” closes, it’s back to high school…and re-taking the SATs…and filling out all of those college applications, stuff that most 17-year-olds are dealing with. “I have to go back to being 17,” Molnar said, accented with a sigh. Then she perked up. “The auditions are just going to keep on coming in and we’ll see what hits.”

Given her work in “Harbor,” one can only imagine that there will be a lot of “hits,” for the young lady who couldn’t find a fit in tennis, soccer or track has found a harbor in acting.

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