Mary Louise Wilson went from a childhood in New Orleans to a long career in New York; she's appeared on Broadway in 18 shows over several decades, culminating in a 2007 Tony Award for her performance in the musical Grey Gardens. But this Thursday will be a first for the veteran performer-turned-playwright, when her new play, Short Takes — an evening of six brief, breezy comedies — makes its world premiere at Le Chat Noir.
Writing is a relatively new second career for the character actor, who's toured with Angela Lansbury in Gypsy, and starred in the 1990s revival of Cabaret. Wilson's first foray into playwriting was Full Gallop, a one-woman show about Vogue editor Diana Vreeland — which she said was born of necessity: "Nobody else would hire me for something I wanted to do." Full Gallop won numerous awards for Wilson's performance and script (cowritten with Mark Hampton), along with a national tour, and its success inspired her to collect several playlets she'd been workshopping with actors near her country home outside Manhattan.
Short Takes was originally performed in January at a highly successful public reading at Le Chat, staged by Carl Walker, who's directing this production. At the reading, all of Wilson's sketches combined sophisticated wit with belly laughs. In "Lost," she wrings humor out of two absentminded women just trying to leave the house; "Rave" is a black comedy about an actress' descent into madness as a mysterious rival begins getting all her roles.
Having her new show debut on St. Charles Avenue is a homecoming for the Newman graduate, who grew up in New Orleans with her sister, local actor Taffy Maginnis. "We lived in the Garden District when it wasn't million-dollar real estate," she says. "It was a sleepy town in the 1940s and 1950s. Some of the streets weren't even paved." By the 1960s, Wilson had gone on to Northwestern University and was working in Manhattan, alternating stage work with movies and TV. She had a run as the next-door neighbor Ginny on the sitcom One Day At a Time, as well as a role on Frasier and a dramatic stint on The Sopranos as a love interest for Uncle Junior.
Wilson will be at opening night, and is looking forward to her visit. Besides enjoying the debut of Short Takes, she says she's going to spend her time with local friends "playin'. Dancin'. Zydeco! I'll be at Rock 'N' Bowl, and I hope Tipitina's."
But opening night comes first, and Wilson says it's a thrill after all these years to be hearing other actors read lines she wrote. "Standing in the back of the theater, listening to people laugh — I think it's the most exciting thing in the world," says the woman who's brought so many other writers' characters to life. "That feels like such ... power."
SHORT TAKES: AN EVENING OF COMEDIES
BY MARY LOUISE WILSON
8 P.M. FRI.-SAT., APRIL 3-4; 6 P.M. SUN., April 5; through April 19
LE CHAT NOIR, 715 ST. CHARLES AVE., 581-5812; WWW.CABARETLECHATNOIR