To be award-worthy, Tracee Chimo does not have to storm the stage in demolition mode, annihilating all in sight with nasty put-downs and withering wit—a la Bad Jews (Outer Critics Circle Award and the Drama League Award nominations) and Bachelorette (Actors’ Equity’s Clarence Derwent Award). She can be inconspicuous as a coat rack and have the same effect—a la Circle Mirror Transformation (a Lucille Lortel nomination). A little of both works as well—a la The Break of Noon (Los Angeles’s Stage Scene Award).
Ms. Chimo turned 30 and Broadway actress four years ago, playing a quiet revolutionary in hiding from the Nazis in Irena’s Vow. “She was another little fighter, but she was shy and did not say much,” Ms. Chimo recalled. “I only had about 12 lines in the whole play. What I loved about her, similar to what I love about Daphna, was this great passion for who she was and who her family was and what that stood for.”
“Daphna” is Daphna Feygenbaum in Bad Jews, which sold out last fall at the Roundabout Underground’s Black Box Theater and will start previewing upstairs at the much larger Laura Pels on Sept. 20. A tradition-driven Vassar senior who starts out on the side of the angels, the character soon deteriorates into a demonic head-butting contest with her first cousin.
The object of Daphna’s obsession is a religious chai worn by the grandfather she has just buried. It was given to him by his father, who, along with his family, perished in the Holocaust. Daphna, as keeper of the family flame, passionately contends she is entitled to the chai. But the heirloom has been passed on to the first-born male of her generation, Liam Haber (Michael Zegren), who has an intense dislike of Daphna and a sentimental attachment to the chai. He’s the anti-Daphna—a slacker who skips his grandfather’s funeral so he can snowboard with his shiksa girlfriend, Melody (Molly Hanson)—and thus the battle begins, in the tiny crash pad of Liam’s brother, Jonah (Philip Ettinger).
“Daphna’s view is that he’s breaking away and she’s embracing,” Ms. Chimo said. “While he’s desperately trying to escape, she’s desperately trying to carry this thing on. She wants to pass this on to her children.”
Bad Jews is a blistering comedy by 30-year-old playwright Joshua Harmon, who has kept the quiver of both combatants so well stocked with stinging zingers that it’s hard to tell who falls into the title camp. “It felt like both had valid arguments and both are right at different moments in the story,” he said. “And the wisest decision was to make them as ugly as possible so it never felt like one was favored over the other—that I wasn’t tipping my hand.”
The play is rooted in a Holocaust memorial service Mr. Harmon attended in his college days. “Typically what happens is a Holocaust survivor comes in and speaks about his or her experience,” he said. “But at this particular service, the theme was the grandchildren of survivors. There were no survivors, just grandchildren—my classmates—talking about their grandparents.
“It was monumentally unmoving, sterile, full of clichés. I left feeling really scared, because these are the people who are going to tell this story now.”
In rehearsals, he marveled at how Ms. Chimo took charge of her character and, in a larger sense, the play. “She really went to town on it. I hadn’t written it with a particular actor in mind, and I didn’t know what that part could be, so to see her keep finding new colors every day was thrilling. It’s a fierce battle, but, because it’s a comedy, you hear the audience responding. I think the actors were energized afterward. I went out with them after shows, and they haven’t been totally exhausted. But Tracee was depleted. I’m pretty sure she went home and soaked in a bathtub every night.”
Guilty as charged, Ms. Chimo nodded. “Daphna is a handful, and I love her—but she’s a lot. She’s ready for a fight every night at 7:30. It is like being shot out of a cannon for an hour and a half.
“Someone asked me recently if I had to really dig and pull to get the aggression and ferociousness that Daphna naturally possesses. I said, ‘No. Those things are inside of me.’ I just don’t lead with them like she does. Everyone has that stuff inside of them. It’s just a matter of bringing them to the table every day and playing with them.”
She credits her director, Daniel Aukin, for the triple-somersaults in her acting. “He created an environment where you’re allowed to mess everything up. He invited me to do it badly. He kept saying, ‘Just do it wrong. Don’t try to make it right or do it well. Do it bad, and let’s see what we get from that.’ All that made me brave.”
There have been rest-stop roles between Ms. Chimo’s volcanic eruptions. ”That’s definitely something that I do consciously,” she said. For every high-voltage Daphna Feygenbaum, there is a low-watt launching pad like Myrtle Mae Simmons, Jessica Hecht’s sheltered old-maid-in-the-making daughter in Harvey.
Ms. Chimo’s character contrasts come as jolts to the system for critics. The New York Times’s Charles Isherwood admitted that he has trouble recognizing her. “What’s most startling about this actress is her versatility,” he wrote. “She seems to be almost physically transformed from performance to performance, so deeply does she burrow into her characters’ identities.”
In Bachelorette, her Regan is the bridesmaid from hell, and Ms. Chimo attacked the role with an unflinching ferocity, leading her pack of co-stars to horrific extremes. Her reward: Actors’ Equity’s 2011 Clarence Derwent Award as “the most promising female performer on the New York theater scene.” She didn’t get to reprise her triumph for the movie version—Kirsten Dunst played Regan—but attended the New York premiere.
Before Bachelorette came a passive persona. In Circle Mirror Transformation, Ms. Chimo played a teenager with an interest in the theater, attending a Vermont acting class taught by Deirdre O’Connell (but actually insidiously scripted and directed by Annie Baker and Sam Gold). The whole class won an Obie and a Drama Desk Award for Best Ensemble, with Ms. Chimo singled out for a Lortel nom.
“My character, Lauren, is the audience, the observer,” Ms. Chimo said. “She’s watching the same things the audience is watching in the same exact way. I feel the audience keeps checking in with her, because they recognized she’s them.”