Maxwell doesn’t regret her “bring it on” instruction to Carlyle, even if the sessions are strenuous. “He took me at my word,” she explains, with a gaze that says, “I have no one but myself to blame.”
She’s one of those actor’s actors who seems to eternally win outstanding notices, even if the struggle to earn them was harder than critics know. Describing her portrayal of a self-dramatizing stage actress in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s 2009 revival of “The Royal Family,” Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times that Maxwell “gets the star role she has long deserved and fills it to the fingertips.”
The reference to a lengthy apprenticeship seems fitting. After growing up in a North Dakota family that included her younger brother Richard — now a highly regarded off-Broadway playwright and avant-garde stage director — she arrived in New York in 1980 ambitious and terrified. “I think I probably stared at a wall for three months, and I spent the next 10 years being scared,” she says.
In the early days, she worked as a script reader for theater companies and as an actress in the Paper Bag Players, a troupe for children. She filled her resume with roles like that of a Jumping Bean. “They loosened me up,” she says appreciatively of her time with the Players. “You have to be so honest with the kids.”
“Follies” presents characters at the ends of various roads who are reflecting on their beginnings, and listening to Maxwell, one is reminded how show-biz lives, like all lives, commence with hope. “As stupid as it sounds, I wanted to be on Broadway,” she says of what kept her going in leaner times. At one point, about 20 years ago, she had had it with the New York struggle. “I was about to leave New York, about to pack it in and go to Seattle,” where she had friends working in theater.
Then, suddenly, Broadway made a fateful gesture, offering her a place in the successful musical “City of Angels.” She has returned to Broadway again and again, sometimes in hits (1997’s “A Doll’s House,” with Janet McTeer) and sometimes in flops (2004’s “Sixteen Wounded”). Where “Follies” will take her, Maxwell says she has not a clue. Theater, she says, “is not a ladder system.” “And like all actors,” she adds with a laugh, “I think I’ll never work again.”
May 7-June 19 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Tickets, $45-$150. www.kennedy-center.org. 202-467-4600.
More from The Post’s series profiling the Sondheim stars:
Bernadette Peters: Pairing up again with Sondheim
Elaine Paige: ‘Still Here,’ in ‘Follies’
Jan Maxwell: Her ‘Follies’ philosophy? Bring it on
Regine: Bringing grandiosity to ‘Follies’
Linda Lavin: At 73, still a Broadway baby
Terri White: ‘Who’s That Woman?’
Rosalind Elias: A celebrated mezzo-soprano