Dana Delany uses art as inspiration in 'Goodnight Nobody'

By John Soltes / January 29, 2020
Photo: Goodnight Nobody stars, from left, Nate Miller, Dana Delany and Ariel Woodiwiss. Photo courtesy of T. Charles Erickson
Dana Delany, the accomplished actor of both stage and screen, has come to a point in her professional career where she wants to do things on her own terms — and that means only saying yes to projects that challenge her, as a performer and as a person. Her current challenge is Goodnight Nobody, the new family dramedy by Rachel Bonds at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey.

"I'm kind of at the place in my career where I want to do things that challenge me, and I did a play off-Broadway a year and a half ago that I had really a good time on called Collective Rage," Delany said in a recent phone interview. "It was written by a young female playwright [Jen Silverman], and when this came my way, I knew of Rachel Bonds. I knew of her writing and [director] Tyne Rafaeli, and I want to work with young women who are doing things. I feel like it's the time now to work with these women and tell stories that haven't been heard before."

Delany, a two-time Emmy Award winner, credits McCarter's dedication to presenting the work of female artists to Emily Mann, the longtime artistic director of the theater company who is stepping down at the end of this season.

"I think that's all on Emily Mann," said Delany, who appeared on Broadway in Translations and A Life. "She's kind of a phenomenon. She's been running the McCarter for so long, and everybody behind the scenes is predominantly female. It's not surprisingly incredibly well-organized and very supportive, and everybody's voice is heard. And I've got to say the crew backstage is one of the smoothest crews I've ever worked with, ever."

Bonds' new play finds Delany portraying the character of Mara, an artist who has a tucked-away cabin in New York's Hudson Valley. The narrative is built around a special weekend that finds Mara's adult son, Reggie (Nate Miller), bringing his two childhood friends, K (Ariel Woodiwiss) and Nan (Saamer Usmani), up to the cabin for some catching up time. Mara has brought her new boyfriend and fellow artist, Bo (Ken Marks). It's safe to say that nothing remains the same after these few days spent together, and one of the wrinkles in the plot involves Mara and Nan, who is also an artist, having a secretive relationship.

"She wants it, and she's a single person," the actor said. "And why shouldn't she have it? … I feel like we put more on women in this question then we would on a man making this decision."

The play went through many changes during its development. In fact, when talking to Hollywood Soapbox, Delany and Usmani had just been given a new scene for the beginning of the play — a pivotal part of the show that establishes their relationship and provides context for the weekend at the cabin.

"I kind of am just along for the ride," she said about the changes. "It's about developing a new piece, and I'm here to support the writer. The character when I first read it was more just an artist who had always done her own thing, and then she doesn't realize the cost until the end. But now it's become more complex. … One of the important notes that people had was that she not be seen as the bad guy because she's done something for love that a man would do without thinking about it pretty much, that she not be the villain of the piece."

Delany sees her character of Mara as someone dedicated to her art. Although audience members don't see her at work in her studio, the love and passion for expression is obvious throughout the entire story.

"I think that her work is primary no matter what," Delany said. "Children can leave you, and lovers can leave you. But you will always have your work, and in the end, that is all she has is her work. … These cabins are really not that unusual for artists in the Hudson Valley. It's often where they go to do their work. I feel like for her it's not New York, it's not the city, and it's hers. It's her haven."

Dana Delany and Saamer Usmani star in Goodnight Nobody, now playing the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey. Photo courtesy of T. Charles Erickson
Delany's career includes many roles in film, TV and on stage. She has appeared in everything from Body of Proof to Desperate Housewives to China Beach and Hand of God. Her upcoming project is HBO's The American Guest in which she portrays Edith Roosevelt. The creative muscle needed to act on stage is similar to the one needed for film and TV, but her time in theater is a bit more draining.

"It takes more energy definitely," Delany said. "For instance, I have a cold right now because it's been nonstop, so physically it's more of a challenge. You need the other actors more on stage. This is definitely an ensemble piece. We've discovered this night after night, but if one person is a tick behind, then everything kind of unravels a little bit. And that's in Rachel's writing, too, because it's orchestrated. It sounds very naturalistic, but it's not. It's very precise. Every um, but, ellipsis is written in there, so we're trying to play that music. It's hard. You have to stay on top of it, and that's something you don't have to do in film and television. You can always cut and do another take. The editing will do the music."

The great joy of performing in a project like Goodnight Nobody comes from working with this ensemble, who need to be constantly attentive and supportive of one another — otherwise the comedy, the drama and the unexpected turns don't register.

"It's exciting to work with young actors," she said. "I think that Ariel and Nate and Saamer, they're all just going to rise and rise and rise and do fantastic things, and then there's Ken who, my God, he's just so solid and so much fun to work with. It's been great. They've been really welcoming to me, and I feel honored to work with these people now before they're becoming huge stars."

How this theatrical family came to be so natural is a credit to the actors, the director and the playwright. Delany said that Bonds doesn't spell out everything in the script, so it's up to the cast to figure out their characters, their emotions, their feelings, their thoughts and their desires.

"You're not going to see Mara being this powerful woman," Delany said. "She's just going to be a woman, and you can surmise what you want. You're not going to see her doing her art. You're going to see her interacting with people, and the same thing with her relationship with K. … I feel like Mara cares about her as somebody that her child grew up with."

Playing a character who is a successful artist dovetails nicely with Delany's own passions in life. When she's not acting, she can often be found traveling the world and appreciating art. It's her favorite hobby and one that she has been dedicated to for quite some time.

"Art is kind of my side passion as an appreciator," she said. "I travel all over the world to look at art. It's what I do for fun, so I do know a lot of artists. I'm involved with the Hammer Museum out in L.A., and we take these trips. I just got back from South Africa a week before we started rehearsal to look at art there, and we've been all over the world. So, yes, I do know a lot of artists because we go to their studios and do studio visits and things like that. There is a purity of art that I really appreciate because, yes, it is commerce, you have to sell it, but when you're in your studio, it's just you alone and creating. I don't really even collect art because they you would have to monetize it. I just want to appreciate it because it makes me so happy."

Now others have the chance to appreciate Delany's art.