Actress Felicity Huffman at the Mark Taper Forum. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
Felicity Huffman is passed out on a leather couch. Her hair is mussed, her nose is chapped. Her eyeglasses are askew on her face.
It's the flu — and she wears it well.
In theater rehearsals, anyway.
In David Mamet's political comedy "November," opening at the Mark Taper Forum on Sunday, Huffman plays Clarice Bernstein, an idealistic lesbian speechwriter with a nasty cold. Her employer is the president of the United States, played by Ed Begley Jr., and it's just days before what appears to be a doomed election for the leader of the free world.
"Ah-choo!" Huffman sits upright on the Oval Office couch, wiping her nose, still in character.
"Do it again with the tissues plugged in your nose," says the play's director, Scott Zigler. "I like that."
"That was my touch," Huffman says proudly. "The tissues and the drool, both mine."
There's a relaxed intimacy between Huffman and Zigler as they retool the scene's blocking, something that comes from 30 years of friendship and artistic collaboration. The two were theater mates at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where Huffman studied drama in the early '80s; both were mentored by Mamet, who taught acting there. They're also founding members, along with Huffman's husband, William H. Macy, and Mamet, of Atlantic Theater Company, which put on plays in Chicago for two years before moving to New York in 1987.
The familiarity that stems from these roots is evident in the ease between the actors onstage at rehearsal. Rod McLachlan, cast as the president's aide, is also a member of ATC, as is Todd Weeks, who plays a turkey-industry lobbyist in "November."
Begley is no stranger to Mamet. In 2005, he starred at the Taper in the Mamet farce "Romance." And he played Del, a character believed to have been drawn from Mamet's childhood, opposite Huffman in "The Cryptogram," for which Huffman won an Obie Award in 1995.
"It's sort of Atlantic Theater Company West," Huffman says and later adds about Mamet: "He's so truthful and specific. He combines such erudite language with comedy and silliness. It feels familiar."
Huffman's role in "November" marks a return to theater — and Mamet — after 12 years of television and film work. ABC's "Desperate Housewives," on which she played the frazzled, working mother Lynette Scavo, came to its eight-season conclusion in May, leaving Huffman, 49, at one of those wide-open career junctures that can be exciting but also dizzying with new possibility. In late spring, she launched an ambitious parenting website featuring celebrity friends and a roster of mommy bloggers.
"It feels like stumbling forward, joyously," Huffman says over coffee the day after rehearsal. "It's like: 'whoops … oh, wow … whoops.'"
She's just come from dropping off one of her daughters at school, and in her loose-fitting purple dress, simple ponytail and no makeup, she could be any working mother grabbing coffee midmorning — except we've snagged a shady table on the back patio so as not to attract attention. She is relaxed and thoughtful, often pausing to find the right words and frequently punctuating answers with bits of self-deprecation followed by a quick, knowing smile.
Huffman unabashedly will tell you, for instance, that she knows little about politics and is easily influenced by others' opinions. "I'm a lemming," she insists. "I have the backbone of a chocolate éclair."
"Wait, seriously? A lemming?" this reporter asks, recalling the actress' advocacy work last year for Planned Parenthood and her fervent statement of support for transgender people in her 2006 Golden Globes acceptance speech for drama actress for "Transamerica." "Come on. You're a strong woman with strong opinions."
"I'm not, I'm really not," Huffman insists. "I go: 'Yeah, that's a good point. I think that.' Then I talk to someone else and go: 'That's a good point too.'"
Pressed further, Huffman reveals an unwavering stance on abortion — she's pro-choice. And acting in "November" with the real-life presidential election imminent has sparked certain political passions.
"One of the things about this country that I love — and I would call myself a patriot, and I'm sorry the right has co-opted that word — is that we can change regimes peacefully," Huffman says. "I am here not only to defend my right to vote a certain way, but I'm also here to defend your right to vote the exact opposite from me."
The knowing smile returns: "But I really am a lemming."
Coyness aside, there may be some truth to Huffman's ever-shifting points of view. Like many serious actors, she is an empty vessel of sorts, adept at inhabiting myriad characters. She and Macy host "power charades" at their house, she says, elevating the game to a near extreme sport, and for fun do accents around the dinner table with their daughters Georgia, 10, and Sophia, 12.