‘I’m still wearing my collar. It helps me keep in character as it makes a little jingling sound. And it’s good for scratching and such,” says Rachel Dratch in a phone interview during a rehearsal break for the comedy “Sylvia” by A.R. Gurney, which goes into previews on Tuesday, March 30 and opens Friday, April 2, at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. Not the usual opening remarks, but then Dratch is playing not-the-usual title character, who just happens to be a dog. In the play, a man brings Sylvia home, much to the dismay of his wife. “I become a bone of contention between them. No pun intended,” says Dratch.
This role can be enriched by what actors call “sense memory.” When Dratch was a little girl a stray dog, a collie-huskie mix, ran up to her in the family’s front yard. Indulgently, her parents let her keep her and she named her Muffin. In “Sylvia” she plays another mixed breed mutt. We’re told it is a labradoodle — a cross between a Labrador and a poodle. Dratch assures me that dog lovers, pure bred or non, will love this play.
Most of us are more familiar with Dratch as other characters she played for seven years on “Saturday Night Live.” Remembering her Debbie Downer expressions, one can certainly imagine that her Sylvia must have a very expressive face. “I’ve never played a dog before except for Snoopy in a high school production of ‘You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.’ But I’ve certainly played a lot of creatures and critters over the years.” And she’s not unfamiliar with characters who relate to pets as we remember her as Phoebe, a woman whose giant pets (a parrot and a cat) ruin her dates.
Some of her other memorable SNL characters include Martha Stewart, a Junior High boy named Sheldon, a space lesbian, Harry Potter, Hillary Clinton, and Elizabeth Taylor. She and Jimmy Fallon played Boston teenagers. And with Will Ferrell, the two of them were professors called “The Luvers” whose most memorable scene had them in a hot tub. “I played lots of dudes [male characters]. It’s bizarre. Although one of them I wrote for myself because I thought it would be funny — this 80-year-old sleazy Hollywood producer Abe Scheinwald.”
She says that SLN cast members usually write much of their own material, and she enjoys writing even though, with the performance deadlines, “It was trial by fire.” She would like to do more writing but misses the pressure she thinks she needs to produce it. Her brother, Daniel, is a writer in Los Angeles who has written for television and received awards for work on “Monk” and “The Chris Rock Show.”
Dratch grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, where her mother (now retired) directed a transportation agency for the state and her dad is a radiologist. She remembers watching SNL when she was only in the third grade. “I was fascinated by SNL but never thought, ‘Oh, I’ll be on that some day.’” She was in school plays every year and went to summer theater camp. “But it was always just something fun, not like pursuing it as a career. After all, the odds of making it are pretty daunting.”
At Dartmouth College, she earned a degree in drama and psychology. “I did think about becoming a therapist and still have on occasion when I’m not getting jobs or am sick of the business. But then I realize I’ve put so much time in as an actor, and it’s so much fun. I think I’m in it for life.”
She was part of an improv group in college who decided to take a trip to “Improv Central,” a.k.a. Chicago, to visit the well-known comedy venue Second City. “I didn’t want to not try just because I was scared of it. So, in Chicago, slowing but surely — certainly not instant success — I got into the Second City Touring Company, which led to moving up to their main stage. Then, you’re really in it.” She wrote sketches and appeared in them for four years. For two of the sketches, she won the Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Actress in a Revue. At Second City, she and Tina Fey developed and appeared in a two-person show that eventually made it to New York City at the Upright Citizen Brigade Theater. My friend Jeff Knapp (theatre director and sound designer) saw this and remembers it as one of the funniest evenings ever, especially their “Wuthering Heights” spoof.
Dratch joined Saturday Night Live in 1999. In addition to sketch work, she has appeared in other television programs and made film appearances. “A lot of them are on late night cable. Adam Sandler put me in a bunch of his movies. Sometimes I get recognized from those. I haven’t done as many movies as I’d like to.”
Also in New York she has appeared as part of a rotating cast at the Triad Theatre on the upper west side on Monday nights in “Celebrity Autobiography.” “We read from various celebrity autobiographies. The people who wrote them didn’t mean them to be funny, but now — time has passed.” She has “done” Joan Lunden and Vanna White, but says, “My favorite has interchanging bits from autobiographies by Burt Reynolds, Loni Anderson, and Burt Reynolds’ secretary. I read the secretary.”
She has spent quite some time involved with the on-again, off-again new musical “Minsky’s” with music by Charles Strouse (“Bye Bye Birdie,” “Annie”) lyrics by Susan Birkenhead (“Jelly’s Last Jam”), and book by Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”). When it opened in the spring of last year at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, New York Times theater Critic Charles Isherwood flew to LA and favorably noticed Dratch. He wrote, “Ms. Dratch and Mr. [John] Cariani as the matched misfits almost steal the show with a sour-grapes duet, ‘I Want a Life,’ a plaintive song about the allure of the untheatrical life. ‘I want a life where pies are dessert,’ Mr. Cariani sings in a nasal drone matched by Ms. Dratch’s. ‘Where flowers are flowers and none of them squirt.’”
She says she was thrilled to meet and work with Strouse and told him that “Annie” was the first professional musical that she saw. “I used to dance around the living room to the record from ‘Annie.’” She never dreamed that she’d grow up to be in one of his shows. For now, “Minsky’s” keeps “going into limbo. Just last week I heard there had been another rewrite. I keep waiting by the window — another year — still a possibility.” Let’s hope.
Meanwhile, mark your calendar for Dratch’s special appearance on Saturday Night Live on May 8, when a group of alumnae gather to support Betty White as the evening’s host. But first, there’s “Sylvia.” Woof. Woof.
“Sylvia,” George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Preview performances Tuesday through Thursday, March 30 to April 1, opening night, Friday, April 2, 8 p.m. Romantic comedy by A.R. Gurney about a couple and their new dog. Starring Rachel Dratch of Saturday Night Live. David Saint directs. $28 to $78. 732-246-7717 or www.gsponline.org.