Tracee Chimo greets me after a Sunday matinee with a bacon cheeseburger in one hand. This apparently isn’t some kind of meta-commentary on her character, Daphna, the fearsome, biblically frizzy “super-Jew” at the center of Joshua Harmon’s très très trayf Off Broadway comedy Bad Jews—it’s because playing Daphna makes her ravenous for flesh. “I eat a Philly cheesesteak every night,” she explains, mouth half-full. “I crave it! So unhealthy. But this deli right next door to my house in Queens has the best Philly cheesesteaks you can get for, like, four bucks.” She started sucking them down last season when Bad Jews first opened at the Roundabout Underground’s black-box theater. “After that run was over, I didn’t have another cheesesteak. But as soon as I started rehearsing Daphna again [for this run at the Laura Pels], I started going over there.”
With Chimo’s schedule, even a vegan rabbi would give her diet a special dispensation. (Not that she’d need one: She isn’t Jewish, genetically, culturally, or creed-wise.) Nightly, she turns in nearly a hundred full-tilt minutes as Daphna, a suddenly religious young woman who turns a family funeral—and her rich cousins’ “spare” apartment—into a literal battleground over a treasured family heirloom. The role is so physically exuberant it’s practically a dance piece, and in fact, Chimo trained as a dancer. She’s been getting attention since her breakthrough role as Lauren, the cagey black-rain-cloud teenager in Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation; after a six-month drought where “everyone kept offering me teenagers, and I was 30,” she said yes to the role of Regan, the ferocious Veuve-slugging bridesmaid-from-hell of Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette at Second Stage. “I got to play a 30-year-old manipulative drug addict, and I was like, Thank you. This is more my thing.”
But Daphna is on another level of ferocity altogether. In her, Chimo combines the timing of Gilda Radner with the body language of Daffy Duck. Yet her character—an artless but effective noodge goddess whose lack of self-awareness makes her an even cannier exploiter of other people’s weaknesses—remains grounded and disturbingly familiar, sympathetic and utterly repellent. And she has launched Chimo into a new stratum of buzz. On her off days, she’s shooting season two of Orange Is the New Black, where she plays Neri, another intense lifestyle commando of the eco-arty persuasion and fiancée of Piper’s stoner brother, Cal (played by Chimo’s real-life theater pal Michael Chernus). There’s also an HBO pilot, about which she’ll reveal only that she plays an “underground Chinatown type” who “taps people’s phones for a living. That’s how she makes her money. Totally sexy—in the sitting-with-her-legs-open-eating-noodles way. The hair! The hair is everywhere!”
Oh, the hair. In Bad Jews, Daphna’s hair is practically its own disputed territory, a region of chronic unrest. Daphna attacks her Sideshow Bob plume—a good portion of which is Chimo’s own—with a hairbrush heavy enough to kill a Galápagos tortoise, and it barely budges. (“Is anybody else choking on her hair?!” screams one character.) It’s her corona of power in follicular form: Daphna sees herself as a bulwark of righteous passion against a sea of cheap irony and lazy assimilation. Her goal is the retrieval of a Holocaust memento from her sleek, smug, secular cousin Liam, played by Michael Zegen. Daphna’s best defense is relentless offense, and there’s not a moment in the show when every muscle isn’t either propelling her into someone else’s airspace or tensing for the next attack. The hair is just the first incursion. Liam fumes: “You can see the strands just, like, hanging in the air like … pollution!”
He might as well be channeling the sentiments of the Hollywood casting directors Chimo encountered during a brief, disastrous period in Los Angeles—an adventure she says she doesn’t intend to repeat. After Circle Mirror, “I kept getting told I was chubby,” she recalls. “Getting scolded for not wearing makeup, for my hair not being well kept, for my heels not being high enough, for my skirt not being tight enough. I just didn’t fit in. They didn’t know what to do with me. Because I wasn’t like the female Chris Farley, you know? Either you’re hot or you’re wicked fuckin’ ugly or you’re fat.”
On “wicked fuckin’ ugly,” her Saugus dialect asserts itself: Chimo grew up Albanian Orthodox and Roman Catholic outside Boston and says her family routinely celebrated two separate Easters, Eastern and Western—“twice the chocolate, and twice the church.” (Daphna isn’t based on any devout family members, she says, though she does have some cousins “who yell a lot.”) She’d been bound for Emerson College on a dance scholarship but blew her knee out just before her high-school graduation and lost her ride. She went to Salem State instead, where friends urged her to try theater. “But I had to audition with a monologue, and I didn’t know what that was. So someone at the school told me just do something from Romeo and Juliet—but I’d only read it in high school. And I didn’t read it: I watched the movie and fell asleep. So I auditioned with this Juliet monologue, and it didn’t make any sense to me. And I had a thick Boston accent, so it was, ‘Romeo Romeo whayah fah at thou Romeo!’ Like that.” Nor, later on, did she speak Hollywood’s language: “I hated having to put on [makeup] every day to go to these auditions and sit in the lobby with these models. I lost my way.”
The Roundabout helped her find it again when she was cast in Harvey opposite Jim Parsons. That brought her back East, where she’s found success in multiple media. “I was told I had to [go to L.A.] if I wanted any kind of career beyond the theater. Which I now know is complete bullshit. Not true. You can stay here and book television stuff that’s better than what you can book in Los Angeles. And some really interesting films too. It’s possible to do both theater and film and television. As long as you have burgers.” And she takes a big defiant bite.
*This article originally appeared in the October 21, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.