The Glorious Miss Pill

Each night, when Alison Pill slips into the lead role of Theresa Rebeck’s new Broadway play, Mauritius, she must endure

Each night, when Alison Pill slips into the lead role of Theresa Rebeck’s new Broadway play, Mauritius, she must endure what can only be described as a theatrical gauntlet. She gets tossed about the stage like a three-ounce rag doll. She has to hold her own against F. Murray Abraham—the F. Murray Abraham—and newer delights like Bobby Cannavale. She has to cry on demand, play fragile and gutsy, and generally serve as the emotional anchor of this Mamet-style play about wounded souls—and stamp-collecting.

And yet, ask the 21-year-old actress how she is surviving, and her pale-moon face begins to glow like a nightlight.

“It’s gotten more and more fun, and more and more empowering to be able to have the guts that this character has—to even pretend for a second that somebody has that amount of balls,” she said unleashing one of many long, galloping bursts of laughter (seriously, some lasted seven or eight seconds).

It was a late September afternoon, less than two weeks before the play’s Oct. 4 opening, and Ms. Pill was sitting, slender and unnoticed, at one of the outdoor banquettes of her favorite East Village coffee joint, MUD. Dressed in jeans and a black tank top, with jittery fingers and poised, button features, she seemed to hover somewhere between frail, vigorous and jaunty.

“She’s the most hopeful character I’ve ever played,” Ms. Pill continued. “It’s so glorious.”

Ms. Pill was not being facetious. While her character, Jackie, is no kitten—she is, in fact, a “damaged” kid who is desperate to escape her crappy past by selling off a contested family stamp collection—she’s a remarkably buoyant creature compared to some of the other roles the actress has tackled.

Ms. Pill, you see, has already been around the crazy-character block several times during her three and a half years in New York City. She has played a scrappy girl terrorist in Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore—a play that marked her Broadway debut and earned her a Tony nomination for featured actress. She has played the tormented victim of a Lolita-style love affair in Blackbird, an off-Broadway play for which she won all kinds of critical praise and, yes, more nominations (that time from the Outer Critics Circle and Drama League). She has played broken girlfriends and clinically depressed teens and now, with Mauritius, a complicated young woman who also happens to be her first starring Broadway role.

Taken together, it’s enough to have earned her the title, unusual at any age, of genuine stage actress—or, even better, theatrical throwback.

“I have a feeling she was born to this, it’s just one of those things,” said Mr. Abraham, who plays opposite her in Mauritius as a wealthy and thuggish stamp collector—yes, a thuggish stamp collector—intent on prying the stamps from Ms. Pill’s character’s possession. “She’s got the potential to do the Great Roles, and I don’t think I run across that very often—or people who are interested in doing it. It’s what I believe an actor should be doing.”

This, however, is not what most actors are doing, particularly the young ones. In these pantiless times, most pretty lithe things with a spark of talent (or just the delusion of it) hightail it to Hollywood as quickly as they can, glancing toward the stage only when they need a quick credibility fix. The results are often less than happy.

But Ms. Pill, who doesn’t drive and insisted she hates L.A. (“I get honked at when I try to walk down the street!”), has embraced a rather different approach to the whole acting game.

She came to New York in early 2004. She settled in the East Village—first in an apartment with two random British dudes, then in her own place. She made some friends, learned to dodge rats, played foosball. She began auditioning. And steadily, if not slowly, she climbed her way from off-off-Broadway to off-Broadway, to the Great White Way itself. (Can people really use that expression anymore?)

Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that she had built a steady career as a kid actor during her teen years in Toronto. And, to be sure, she has done her share of pixilated popcorn fare, appearing in movies like Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen as Lindsay Lohan’s dorky sidekick and Pieces of April as Katie Holmes’ prissy-perfect younger sister. (When asked what it was like working with these two tabloid honeys, she said, with an indulgent smile, “You know, I’m just going to give you the ‘They’re both great.’ And, uh … both very sweet.”) At the end of October, she will shine down from movie screens across the nation as Steve Carell’s daughter in Dan in Real Life.

The Glorious Miss Pill