During her six seasons as Beltway workaholic Amy Brookheimer on Veep, Anna Chlumsky has repeatedly used breaks to return to stage acting. “It’s where I was born,” she says. “I use the metaphor of a cross-trained athlete: If you’ve been doing a lot of sprinting -- I liken that to TV, where you always have to make immediate decisions -- you have to give attention to that other side of your body and your craft. I’m always looking to sink my teeth into something on the boards, when I can.”
Chlumsky’s latest outing, Greg Pierce’s Cardinal, now running Off-Broadway at Second Stage Theater, casts her as Lydia Lensky, a take-charge type who returns to her economically depressed home town in upstate New York with plans to revitalize it. Pushing her agenda requires nurturing a fraught relationship with the town’s young mayor (played by Happy Endings star Adam Pally), who once dated Lydia’s sister, and its residents -- represented by a longtime bakery owner and her son, who face upheaval when Lydia interests a Chinese developer in their property.
The actress had long wanted to work with the production’s director, Kate Whoriskey, who recently charted similar terrain in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat. “I love Kate’s point of view, and she and I have been one degree away from each other for a while, as a lot of my friends have worked with her,” Chlumsky says. “There’s plenty of butt-sniffing when you’re working with a new director, in the first week or so, but Kate is the most patient and eloquent person; she astounds me in how she’s able to put these huge concepts into one sentence, and you’re like, ‘Yeah, I know what you mean.’”
Chlumsky was drawn to the aspirational but often alienating Lydia “as this very modern woman, someone I don’t think is depicted very often. It’s taking this strong, educated, empowered woman and stripping her naked, so that we’re all forced to deal with that part of ourselves. We don’t always say the right things, or even the things we want to say. And in the play you have the larger themes of change and longing and survival in a community -- how we adapt as human beings, how we figure out, whom am I and where do I belong?”
Of the struggles confronted by her Veep character, Chlumsky says, “Amy is just so funny: She keeps being faced with these challenges and failures that we all know are shaping her and making her grow -- but she’ll be damned if she’ll admit that. She hates the idea that life has more power than she does.”
Now approaching its final season, the series is on hiatus while star Julia Louis-Dreyfus undergoes treatment for breast cancer. (She completed chemotherapy in January.) Chlumsky’s Cardinal schedule is keeping her in New York this awards season, so she couldn’t be with her fellow cast members as they accepted this year’s Screen Actors Guild Award for ensemble in a comedy series, but Chlumsky did get to watch co-star Matt Walsh’s shout-out to Louis-Dreyfus, who also won for female actor in a comedy series.
“That was thrilling,” says Chlumsky, adding that the Veep team’s “priority right now is to just be as supportive as possible as Julia starts getting better. We try to keep in touch with her, as there’s never enough you can do. It’s her journey, and our part in it is to be her cheerleaders.”
While Chlumsky has seen plans for a few episodes of Veep’s farewell season, she says, “I don’t know how it’s going to end. But I think we’re going to stay the course. There’s no reason to change the tone. We’ve never considered it a parody -- other programs do that, extremely well. We’ve just got these characters in an insane industry in an insane world, and we trace those journeys truthfully, which leads us into political satire. We look at the human condition and find the absurdity in it; sometimes that makes us laugh, and sometimes it can make us nauseous.”
Though naturally wistful about the series drawing to a close, Chlumsky is also eager to explore new opportunities. “I’m a picky little diva,” she quips. “I want to do good work, so I’ll be drawn to the good stories, wherever they are. A lot of the time, that’s on stage, but this is such a great time for television, too. I’m just excited to see that’s out there.”