By LONNIE FIRESTONE
Olivia Thirlby is mostly known for her girlish likeability in films like Juno and The Wackness, but when she strides on stage in Lonely, I'm Not, the new Paul Weitz play at Second Stage, it's clear she's nobody's sweetheart.
Thirlby plays Heather, a corporate analyst who's strong-minded, iron-willed, and resistant to showing weakness. She also happens to be blind, but that's had no bearing on her drive for success.
For the actress, playing a character who can't see is far less daunting than playing a woman who operates from her left brain. "This is the most challenging role I've played, and it's not just because of the blindness," Thirlby says. "It's finding parts of [Heather] that I understand."
She explains, "I'm very artistic and very visual and kind of earthy. Heather is a logic-brained girl, and she analyzes numbers and reads spreadsheets. And she's an overcompensator. She chooses to work instead of deal with things. So that's the main part of my process - identifying with her life and her circumstances."
The story builds when Heather meets Porter (Topher Grace), a young man recovering from a nervous breakdown. The two meet on a blind date---a deliberate joke by Weitz---and find they have immediate chemistry. "He seems to see her very clearly. He doesn't just see her as someone who's blind," Thirlby says.
Many of the play's scenes feature the two interacting closely. But while Grace looks right into his co-star's eyes, often yearningly, Thirlby never meets his gaze. Instead, she works hard to convey that emotion "energetically."
Thirlby began rehearsing for this role by doing scenes "with my eyes closed" as a way to access a "direct line to Heather." Now, she performs "in the state of having my eyes unfocused. I never let them land on anything. I find it's a lovely exercise because it causes you to open your ears."
That energetic presence is substantially harder to portray on stage than on film. "I think if I were playing Heather on film, it would kind of be a piece of cake," Thirlby says. "The camera is amazing at showing someone's internal world. But on stage you can't really do that. What the stage conveys is the connection between two people. It makes perfect sense to me that this role would be more challenging on stage."
Thirlby's background includes training at the American Globe Theatre and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, but this production marks her first leading role in a play. (In addition to Grace, who makes his Off-Broadway debut, the cast includes Mark Blum, Christopher Jackson, Maureen Sebastian, and Lisa Emery.)
As the star, Thirlby guides the pace of show. Weitz's script, performed without an intermission, is packed with 38 scenes, and the actress says the rapid scene transitions require an incredible amount of focus: "It's very fast paced. Each scene conveys something specific." To keep it moving, Thirlby has adapted to Heather's straightforward speech, dropping her use of 'um's' and other dialogue fillers.
"It's something Trip [Cullman, the director] had to beat out of me," she says with a laugh.