Picture a woman of a certain age in Bill Blass–type duds with a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail in the other, dropping dry-witted rejoinders, and Christine Baranski’s snub-nosed visage will probably come to mind. In plays (Rumors, Regrets Only), movies (The Birdcage), and, of course, Cybill — the nineties sitcom where Baranski played Cybill Shepherd's astringent best friend Maryanne Thorpe — her timing and shading have brought such women to life. Now, in her return to Broadway after a long seventeen years, she brings those deadpan chops to the role of Berthe, a dry-tongued maid in the revival of the early-sixties farce Boeing-Boeing, in which a crew of American bachelors living it up in mod Paris scheme to bed stewardesses from as many countries as they can without getting caught. Through the mayhem, Baranski, who turns 56 today, provides the crankily unimpressed commentary. With ten minutes before a rehearsal, she talked to Tim Murphy about the play, which opens this Sunday at the Longacre.
The play is set in the early-sixties Playboy era, when women were depicted as baubles for men to collect. How did that sit with you?
I saw it in London with Meryl Streep on my second-to-last day of shooting Mamma Mia!. We sat there and laughed, delighted. I call it the "What's New, Pussycat?" school of male chauvinism. It's kind of insouciant and charming and you simply can't get away with that now. Skirt-chasing and chauvinism is no longer comedic, but back then, it kind of was.
There's a plethora of wildly exaggerated European accents in this show. Yours is French — what’s the hardest part of faking the accent?
The way they emphasize words. They have a different whole sensibility. There's always a question mark at the end of anything they say like it's open for discussion. The role in England was played with a Cockney accent, but I just didn't hear her as an American. What would she be doing working as a maid in Paris? In the script, her whole temperament seems so Gallic — her superiority and her pessimism.
You probably haven't had time to see Baby Mama, but the parts you and Cybill Shepherd played in the nineties TV show Cybill were part of an evolution leading to female buddy flicks where the girls can be just as raunchy and gross as the guys.
Maryanne was the beginning of a long line of martini-swilling, sassy over-forty women characters that began appearing on lots of TV shows. That was quite seminal.
You’re known for playing those kinds of wise-cracking rich dames. Is this your first domestic?
Actually, one of my first theater roles was playing Doreen [the maid] in Tartuffe, and she's a sassy commentator. Sassy roles are a big part of my career. Most of my career is spent in high heels and glamorous clothes. I just can't tell you how happy I am to be in flats and a little simple wig and not too much make-up.
Speaking of wigs, you wear the same kind of blunt-cut wig in the play and in Mamma Mia!.
For Mamma Mia, it had to be a contrast to Meryl. And I had to be dancing on the beach, so I figured better to have bangs than to have your wig lace show.
What's your nightly routine before curtain?
I get to the theater at least two hours early and eat, usually something light like Japanese food. I go on the stage. I warm up my voice. I run through almost the entire play in a French accent. Then I put on a CD and I speak in French along with a man who's narrating a story. It's some story about a rabbit-wolf. I can't quite figure out what it's about.
Your birthday's been in the news all week, with you saying how it's not worth hiding your age. Happy belated birthday.
Well, it's Friday. They kind of got it wrong. But that's okay. I don't mind people celebrating my birthday for an entire week.