‘Every once in a while you run into a Jessica Hecht’
The actress talks about art, life, friendship, and Tony nominations
Jessica Hecht should be happier.
It’s two days after the Princeton-born actress was nominated for a Tony award for her brilliant turn as Alice in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of “Summer, 1976.” In this marvelous and moving two-hander about female friendship, she shares the stage with Laura Linney.
The problem is that Ms. Linney was not nominated. In a Zoom interview, I ask if the nomination — only Ms. Hecht’s second in a lengthy Broadway career — is a little bittersweet.
“It is,” she answered. “Thank you for asking that. It is terribly bittersweet. I am rarely nominated. You can look at my history and the plays I’ve done. I’m not often nominated. I think part of why I was nominated this time is because the people who nominate might have seen the other plays I did this year.
“I did three plays, and in a funny way, it” — the nomination — “might be cumulative. I did the ‘Cherry Orchard’ earlier with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Then I did ‘Letters from Max’ and then this play. So it’s sometimes them saying it’s for scope of what you’ve done. It’s complicated, I’ll say that. But I feel so bound to the dynamic of being in this duet with Laura that it is bittersweet for sure. Thank you so much for asking it in that way.”
I tell her I don’t understand. On stage the two of you act as one — wait for it — orgasm. Oops. I correct myself. Organism. I mean organism.
She laughs and says, “That is something I would do. I used to have a line in a play where I was supposed to say ‘that’s an aberration,’ and I kept saying ‘that’s an abortion.’ But I understand what you mean. How can you separate the two of us?”
I’ve known of Jessica for a long time. She achieved early fame as David Schwimmer’s former wife on “Friends” and followed that as a married friend of the title character in the short-lived sitcom “The Single Guy.”
But her greatest successes were in theater: “A View From the Bridge” (her other Tony nomination); “The Assembled Parties” (where I briefly met her); and as Golde in the recent revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” among many, many others.
Talking to Jessica was different than a typical celeb interview. Those usually come in two basic varieties. There’s the person who phones it in. He or she has done hundreds of them and been asked the same questions over and over and is understandably bored. Then there are those who understand that this is part of their job and do their best to make it seem that each question is brilliant and this is the first time it’s been asked.
But every once in a while you run into a Jessica Hecht, an actress seemingly without artifice, and it becomes less an interview than two friends schmoozing, certainly appropriate for this production.
“Summer, 1976” is about friendships found and lost, and it clearly affected the audience that I saw it with. According to Ms. Hecht, it impacted others too. “I have been so moved by people who come backstage and tell me about these friendships they’ve had that was so powerful and painful to have lost,” she said. “Did you have someone in mind when you were watching the play?”
I tell her yes, a childhood friend and I have had a falling out, and I am not taking his calls, and then I quickly change the subject. I ask how the play came
“Big theaters do multiple readings of a play to develop it,” she said. “I gather this had been read before as [playwright] Dave [Auburn] was developing it. Someone from the theater reached out and said we think you and Laura would be a great pair for this.
“I read the script and was totally immersed in it from the beginning. You know, sometimes you read a script and you’re trying to find your way into it. This was an immediate plunge into the center of who these two women were to each other. We did a reading that was very successful, meaning people laughed and cried. Then I was so fortunate that they offered it to me
It is a complicated emotional roller coaster of a play, made more difficult because Jessica was rehearsing and then appearing in “Letters From Max” at the same time she was rehearsing it. That meant memorizing two scripts at roughly the same time. This was further complicated because script changes are part of the process. Memorize a page today, and it might be altered or even gone tomorrow.
“But you have no other choice,” she said. “I did it out of sheer terror.”
I wondered if Ms. Hecht thought that two men could have played these roles. She said yes, “but it would take two very unique men.” Even then the story would not have been as believable.
“The issues of the play — being on your own, being independent, and being okay without a partner — in 1976 those issues were very different for a man and a woman.”
Ms. Hecht, 57, was born in Princeton and grew up in Connecticut. Her household was secular, “but I’ve always gone to synagogue my whole life,” she said. She even arranged her own bat mitzvah, officiated by a rabbi who was ordained in Auschwitz.
“He was not a warm guy at all,” she said. “He ruled with an iron fist. But he really impressed upon me the deep internal comfort of ritual.”
Ms. Hecht’s husband, Adam Bernstein, also was raised in a secular household. His mother was Catholic. Their children, now 22 and 23, identify as Jewish. Her daughter, Stella, opted for a bat mitzvah. Her son, Carlos, did not want to become bar mitzvah.
“We gave them a choice, and my son said no,” she said. “But now he would like to join a synagogue, so he’s come to it on his own, which I think is very beautiful.”
We chat some more, about the college instructor who convinced her to change her major from dance to theater and about her first trip to L.A., where she got a job as a nanny for George Wendt of “Cheers” fame. (I asked, but no, she didn’t have to yell “Norm” every time he came in the house.”
We’re about to say goodbye when she says to me, “Curt, call your friend.”