One evening after a recent performance of the play Apologia, its star, Stockard Channing, welcomed three friends backstage — and was astonished to discover that her pals had tears in their eyes.
“They were all crying!” Channing recalls, surprised that her performance could so strongly affect a group of friends who knew her well and had seen her perform many times. “I said, ‘I don’t believe I made you guys cry!’”
But that’s the kind of effect that this Off-Broadway play is having on audiences. The show, about a fiercely independent woman and her fraught relationship with her children, has an emotional punch that sneaks up on you.
“It has this very funny, very fast-paced dialogue, but there’s always more when you start looking,” says Channing’s costar Hugh Dancy, familiar to fans of TV series Hannibal and The Path, and from the Broadway run of Venus in Fur. “There’s always more to grasp — a genuine psychological depth.”
The Roundabout Theatre Company production of Apologia brings Channing, the star of much-loved cultural favorites like Grease, The West Wing, and Six Degrees of Separation, back to the New York stage following her run in the smash Broadway comedy It’s Only a Play in 2014. She stars as Kristin Miller, an American art historian and activist who’s made a home for herself outside London. And the role — witty, acerbic, and whip-smart — almost feels like it was written for her.
For playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell, Apologia was the follow-up to his breakout stage success The Pride (in which Dancy starred Off-Broadway in 2010). Apologia originally premiered in Camden in 2009. In 2017, Channing led the cast of a new London production that became a buzzy hit.
In the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production, Channing is the only holdover from the earlier cast, directed by Daniel Aukin, who recently directed Idina Menzel in Skintight at Roundabout.
In Apologia, Kristin has invited her adult sons (both played by Dancy) and their respective girlfriends for an overnight visit. But it’s a bumpy ride, thanks to the recent publication of Kristin’s memoir and what the book implies about what’s most important to her — and what isn’t.
Like The Pride, Apologia touches on generational differences and the ways they play out in day-to-day life. “In some respect they’re both plays about the way that the past can haunt the present,” says Dancy, who’s had major roles in both shows. “In Apologia, I think Kristin represents a type of person, women in particular, who did things that put them in advance of societal change and paid the price for that.”
But that’s not what’s having such an emotional effect on audiences.
“It’s just a primal situation,” Channing explains. “It’s about family. It’s about mothers and children. We all have a parent. We all have somebody who’s raised us, or else we’re raising other people. I think that’s where it hits. I don’t have any children, and I don’t think I’d want any after doing this play! Because we’re all going to be misunderstood.”
Over the course of a late night and the following morning, the characters in Apologia reveal themselves in all their complexity — and it’s not always flattering. “More than any play I’ve been a part of, this one challenges the vanity of all the actors,” Dancy says. “All of the characters are written to be, at times, disliked or judged or laughed at. It’s very easy for an actor playing any of these roles to feel a little bruised.”
But every person on that stage will defy your expectations. “We kind of take the audience by surprise with this play, because characters that you would not think were going to talk wisely, or have wisdom, do,” Channing points out. “I think that’s the mark of a good play.”
It was her love for the play that made Channing eager to reprise her role in it for the Roundabout Theatre Company production. Throughout a career that’s kept her busy in film and television, she’s always made room for theater. “It’s what I do,” she explains. “I’ve been doing plays since I was 19 years old. I think maybe I’m drawn to theater because I’m drawn to the shaping of a character, and being part of an ensemble and the shaping of an evening. When you do anything on film or television, you show up and you do your bit, and then the director and the editor take that footage and do what they want with it. Someone else shapes it. But here we have to shape it together. Which, when it works, is really cool.”