What do you have to do to make Katie Holmes seem plain with low self-esteem? Does it take more than sweatpants and baggy cardigans? How about no makeup and a ponytail? Would it help if her character keeps moaning about needing to diet, all the while dangling perfect Katie Holmes' legs over dowdy pink slippers?
And while we're asking, how do you make Jessica Chastain into an impeccably bred but painfully shy and graceless late-19th century spinster? Apparently, it starts with no blush. But how about having her curtsy so maladroitly low that she appears to disappear behind the sofa as if doing a vaudeville mime routine?
More to the point, why suddenly do glamorous Hollywood stars think they have to drab themselves down to prove how serious they are about theater? How silly. How sad. And when neither is able to transform into a character so different from her image, how limiting.
In the same month, Broadway has seen these two beautiful women go without mascara and pretend really hard to imagine how awful it would feel if they had been born a bit less beautiful.
Holmes plays a nice, insecure Cincinnati woman still complaining that Mom thought her live-wire brother was smarter in "Dead Accounts," a slim screech of a sitcom by the ordinarily proficient Theresa Rebeck. Holmes was far more convincing in her respectable if unspectacular Broadway debut in a supporting role in Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" in 2008. In contradiction to her ageless cute-girl looks, she may well be better suited to dark churnings than light comedy.
Chastain plays Catherine Sloper, the only child of the domineering wealthy doctor in a lavish but emotionally simplistic revival of "The Heiress," the 1947 demi-classic inspired by Henry James' "Washington Square." Chastain does get to blossom into a powerful woman in the second act. At least to someone who cherishes the revelatory depths of Cherry Jones in the 1995 production, however, Chastain -- a blazingly intelligent film actress -- never gets beyond playing dress-up.
There is something familiar, if not quite identical, about these glam-down makeovers. Who can forget how gorgeous Charlize Theron gained 30 pounds and wore prosthetic teeth -- and deservedly won an Oscar -- as a homeless serial killer in the 2003 drama "Monster"? Nicole Kidman never won an Academy Award until she put on a fake nose to be Virginia Woolf in "The Hours." That was 2002, the year Kidman won the prize over Salma Hayek, who played Frida Kahlo in "Frida."
Rosemary Tichler, who must have seen it all as casting director for Joseph Papp, explains how hard it is to cast plain characters. "Working actresses in the theater mostly have to be attractive" she told me in a phone interview. "There are exceptions, but, as a rule, they don't get very far if they're not."
For example, she mentions Sonya, the gentle workhorse in "Uncle Vanya." "Sonya stands there and says something like, 'I know I am not pretty ... they say you have beautiful eyes and beautiful hair, which is what they tell girls who are not beautiful.' " But Sonya requires so many other qualities that, Tichler says, "As long as the actress is not quite beautiful, she can make it work."
The stakes were different for Farrah Fawcett. She couldn't get a jiggle from Hollywood after "Charlie's Angels." But in 1983, she boosted her credibility by appearing to get beaten up nightly Off-Broadway as the snarling rape vigilante in "Extremities." Then, she made the movie version, after which she got her eyes blackened and teeth crooked as a battered wife in the 1984 TV movie "The Burning Bed." No longer a symbol of brand-name vacuity, she was soon on the cover of Vanity Fair.
At that time, audiences seemed oddly hungry to see glamorous actors -- mainly, but not exclusively, women -- get beaten up by life and its worst horrors. To suffer, especially without makeup, is to be seen as an artist of substance. For a beautiful person to let himself or herself be seen as plain, if heroically indomitable, this must be serious.
Everything is different today. Al Pacino, Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and, next spring, Tom Hanks are inextricable from the Broadway boom. They're good for Broadway. The theater is good for them. So it may be hard to remember that, not so long ago, theater was the place where fading stars came to prove something -- or die trying.
But Holmes and Chastain -- at the top of their game and/or fame -- must have had their pick of projects better suited to their strengths. That's why I'm so surprised to see them so badly cast against type and working so hard at it.
Some may be reminded of something I call Post-Julia Stress Disorder. In 2006, Julia Roberts took a huge chance -- and, to my mind, was wrongly eviscerated -- by making her low-key stage debut as an ensemble player in a revival of "Three Days of Rain," Richard Greenberg's lean three-character drama from 1997. Roberts did not vroom onto Broadway in a souped-up star vehicle or rattle around in a classic three sizes too big for her technique. She didn't flash her pretty-woman smile. She simply played against type with a stillness, an alertness that suggested someone smart was inside. And she got creamed for it.
Casting against type is high-risk business that can border on tragicomedy. Tichler remembers that Peter Allen, the campy and flamboyant singer-songwriter, desperately wanted to replace the dashing Kevin Kline as the Pirate King in "The Pirates of Penzance." "He came in and auditioned," says Tichler with gentle incredulity. Of course, years later, no less a hunk than Hugh Jackman, in his prime as Wolverine meat, had a smash playing openly gay Allen on Broadway in "The Boy from Oz." Brilliant.
Then there was the casting against type of Henry Winkler as an aging porn star in "The Performers." Not brilliant.
At least, Scarlett Johansson is playing Maggie the Cat, not Minnie the Mouse, in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in January.