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Jennifer Coolidge plays leading lady in ‘Saving Kitty’

Jennifer Coolidge at rehearsal for “Saving Kitty” at Central Square Theater. Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — Jennifer Coolidge has expertly played many comedic roles in which her character seems to be half a beat behind everybody else. Now she’s wrangling a role where she projects that impression, but in fact is manipulating everyone masterfully. And she’s relishing the chance.

“Saving Kitty” is a frequently funny, often outrageous four-hander revolving around Coolidge’s Kate, a Manhattanite and diplomat’s wife who objects to the romance between her daughter Kitty and an evangelical Christian. The play’s summertime run, nestled into the annual production hiatus for Coolidge’s main gig as a series regular on the CBS sitcom “2 Broke Girls,” begins performances Thursday under the aegis of the Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater.


Playwright Marisa Smith describes the scenario as “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” “turned on its head” and likens Kate to a cross between Tennessee Williams’s Blanche DuBois and Lucille Ball.

“I hate to say this, but it’s highly unusual when something really cool, a really cool part comes your way. It’s just so not the norm,” Coolidge says in the calm drawl familiar from her on-screen work.

Coolidge, who grew up in Norwell and graduated from Emerson College, has never performed onstage locally. Following her breakthrough as the seductress known only as Stifler’s Mom in the “American Pie” films, she’s specialized in quirky characters with a limited degree of self-awareness. She’s also done stand-up comedy and acted on Broadway in supporting roles. This is a rare chance to put her comedic skills to work as a leading lady.

“If this was Hollywood, this role would have already been given away. I would get the call that maybe there is going to be a maid in the show and it’s going to be sort of improvisational. Or she could be Russian, they’ll do a Russian maid or something. The killer part would have been given away already,” says Coolidge, whose improv chops were honed with the Los Angeles troupe The Groundlings and put to the test in a trio of films directed by Christopher Guest.


Coolidge is joined onstage by Alexander Cook as Huntley, Kate’s somewhat distant husband; Lewis D. Wheeler as Paul, the new boyfriend; and Lydia Barnett-Mulligan as Kitty. Lee Mikeska Gardner, beginning her second season as Nora Theatre Company’s artistic director, directs the play.

The setup is that Kitty is bringing her new boyfriend home for the first time. Kate has bulldozed over previous boyfriends, but Paul seems different. He goes toe to toe with Kate, even as she plants the seeds that she hopes will undo the love match.

Smith says the idea for the show was sparked by a “very nasty comment” about evangelical Christians that she heard at a dinner party in the college town of Hanover, N.H., where she lives with her family. It got her thinking about an under-discussed form of intolerance practiced by the socially liberal.

“I think it’s fun to explore those biases that exist, especially in this very liberal world that we’re in,” says Wheeler. “I certainly have them. If someone brings up the Tea Party, I certainly have a lot of preconceptions about what that person is going to be bringing to the table.”

But Wheeler’s character is “not someone you can pigeonhole. He’s actually pretty open-minded. He’s well educated. You can’t just take him at face value.”


“Saving Kitty” made its world premiere three summers ago at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater and has since been produced at New Jersey Repertory Company. It also received a reading at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Smith has been part of the rehearsals at Nora, fielding questions and cranking out some fresh rewrites. One thing at issue is the play’s ending, which has shifted from production to production and on the day of a recent rehearsal was still in flux.

Gardner was moved to schedule the play in large part because of the combination of leading role and actress. “Roles like Kate, they’re not out there. She’s a woman who is funny and smart and savvy and quick and fierce and flawed,” she says. “I’m always looking for plays in which a female character can be that complex. And it’s rarer than one would think.”

Some reviews of earlier productions refer to Kate as a clown. But though she’s willfully inappropriate, there’s a clear method to her madness.

“I’m doing the non-clown version,” Coolidge says, prompting a laugh all around. “We were talking about whether there are a couple things in the play that are maybe too offensive, and I said to Marisa that if we’re going to do this play, we can’t really be worried about what people think. If this is really the play we want to do, it has to all be in there. No one is spared.”

Gardner nods in fierce agreement.

“There’s some equal-opportunity skewering in the play. It’s across the bandwidth,” she says.


Saving Kitty

Play by Marisa Smith

Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner

Presented by Nora Theatre Company

At: Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, July 9-Aug. 2

Tickets: Starting at $15-$59



Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.