Megan Mullally comes through the door of a small office at the Odyssey Theatre, dressed in a long, flowy strapless dress, a black cardigan and Chinese slippers. Her fashionably straight auburn hair brushes her shoulders, and she looks radiant.
Or is that a bit flushed?
"I think I'm having a hot flash," she says, wiping beads of sweat off her brow. The Emmy- and Screen Actors Guild award-winning "Will & Grace" star has passed the threshold of 50, a milestone most actresses dread in youth-obsessed Hollywood. But Mullally is frankly delighted about it.
"It's just been the best thing," she says. "Once I turned 50, any shadow of a feeling that I had to be a babe, I thought certainly I don't have to do that now that I'm 50. So that was freeing."
Mullally believes her good looks blinded some directors to her potential for character roles over the years, and she hasn't missed a beat in throwing off her glamorous shackles.
In Adam Bock's dark office comedy "The Receptionist," which runs through Nov. 21, Mullally is nearly unrecognizable as the titular Beverly, an old biddy fond of office gossip, putting calls through to voice mail and desk accessories featuring cuddly animals. As the frumpy Beverly, she holds together the center of the office and the play as both spiral down from the mundane rituals of daily life into a bleak commentary on the values of the business world.
Mullally earned plaudits for her sharp, funny and ultimately heart-rending transformation, but a humble 99-seat theater might not be the first place one would expect to find a celebrated star of a long-running series and a Broadway veteran. It is precisely because she had a success like "Will & Grace," with the financial cushion a long-running network series that goes into syndication provides its stars, that Mullally was able to take the role.
"I'm interested in storytelling, and I like the challenge of a character that's significantly different from the way I am in real life," she says, perched on a couch at the Odyssey, which co-produced "The Receptionist" with the Evidence Room under the direction of the company's founding artistic director, Bart DeLorenzo.
"I'm not interested in celebrity culture at all, and I would much rather do something like this, a little Equity-waiver play, than do some high-profile television show that's not good. And I can because I can pay my rent, because I've got the luxury."
Mullally has had close ties to the Evidence Room as an actor and assistant director over the past nine years, working with the company during breaks in shooting "Will & Grace" (1998-2006), which hurtled her to global fame as the wealthy glamazon Karen Walker. In 2000, she starred as a Chanel-loving socialite in Charles Mee's raucous "The Berlin Circle," where she met her husband, Nick Offerman of TV's "Parks and Recreation," who pursued her both on and offstage.
'A clean slate'
Last spring, she came to the Odyssey to see another play directed by DeLorenzo, Caryl Churchill's "A Number," which starred John Heard. Mullally enjoyed it, and after the performance she grabbed DeLorenzo and said she wanted to work with him on a play. "I had a clean slate, which is really fun, and he said, 'Well, they have a slot in this exact theater in August and September,' " she recalls.
A few days later, DeLorenzo handed her a stack of nine plays to read. "The Receptionist" rose to the top, featuring the kind of character role she had trouble getting during her babe period.
"She has an extraordinary range," says DeLorenzo, "but I think to put Megan Mullally in a play where she can't be somewhat funny would be a crime against nature. This play was so funny, but ultimately it's a tragic role, and I knew she wanted to do something unexpected."
Mullally says she was moved by Beverly's sense of loyalty to her co-workers. "When I read this, I just felt an affinity with the character," she says, flipping her hair off her shoulder. "I just knew what I would like to do with it emotionally."
Not that she'd ever worked in an office, nor did she have a picture in her mind of what the character would look like. "I just knew I had to change my appearance completely," says the youthful Mullally. "I'm 50, but I don't think the way I look with regular makeup and my regular hair would have worked for this at all."
A quick trip to New York to see "The Norman Conquests" on Broadway provided the answer. Mullally looked around the audience and noticed "the hairdo of choice right now for women of a certain age -- real short with kind of a bump" at the crown. "And wire-rim glasses are very, very big."