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Elisabeth Gray's 'Southern Discomfort'

By Jerry Portwood

Elisabeth Gray in 'Southern Discomfort' / Photo by Ewa Skowska.

Eight nights a week, Elisabeth Gray is playing at least a half-dozen lesbians on Broadway. Didn't know there were that many lesbian characters on stage at the moment? Currently the understudy to Emilia Clarke's Holly Golightly in the current Broadway production of Breakfast at Tiffany's, Gray also plays a collection of nameless characters seen behind scrims or in the background, visible through the scenery, of the production. 

"I'm kind of a human prop," she admits. "I play a collection of characters, and, this I find fascinating, the director [Sean Matthias] decided all my characters were lesbian. So that cop you see on stage? Yep, she's a lesbian cop."

She's also the safety net who covers for all the women in the show (and has created a web series called Understudies that explores that strange experience). "If you do your job well as an understudy, you have zero ownership of a role," Gray says. But that hasn't kept her from finding another outlet for her creative energies while she's busy on Broadway.

On Monday evenings, her "off night" from Tiffany's, she has mounted her one-woman show Southern Comfort in the basement of the SoHo Playhouse, which includes another half-dozen characters with plenty of quirks and stories to tell.

In the 70-minute production—which begins with a free drink at the bar and plates of pimento cheese sandwiches and slivers of pecan pie—Gray transforms into a male tow-truck driver, an old lady in a nursing home, even a young, one-armed gay man selling firearms at a gun show. But it all started three years ago when she had moved home to be near her mother in Asheville, N.C., who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

"I was in a slump, so I started doing this show," Gray explains one afternoon before she heads to understudy rehearsal for Breakfast at Tiffany's. "They mostly began as improv—I didn't know what I was doing—and some of them still are."

The first character she created was Julia, a young Southern woman in a Los Angeles plastic surgeon's office, who can't help but judge the woman sitting across from her. "It's such an unexpected view of a Southern person," Gray explains. "It's that Southern girl who has escaped the South, so to speak, but her interior framework, her way of seeing the world, remains." After she performed Julia and won a monologue competition, someone prodded her to continue to draw other portraits that drew on her background and experiences.

Gray has done extensive research, traveling to gunshows and stopping at roadside stands to meet people and bring a specificity—each of the characters has a distinct accent and comes from a different region, whether it's Tennessee or Texas. And often she's channeling people she knows or grew up with, such as Penelope (who begins and ends the show), who is based on Gray's departed grandmother who had dementia and did think "the negroes" were stealing her diapers from her.  

While having such blunt characterizations of Southerners could make many who live there uncomfortable, Gray says for the most part people who have seen her show around the country—whether it was a night in Spartanburg, S.C., or a theater in a Louisiana town—don't feel judged by it. Part of it is the empathy she has for her characters, plus, she says she knows what it's like when people in New York City made assumptions about her own intelligence based on her background.

"It made me crazy," she says. "You let people know you're from the South and immediately judgments are made about your political and religious beliefs without even getting to know you."

So, even if she doesn't get a chance to play Holly Golightly on stage in the near future, she understands why that character continues to resonate for many people. "Holly uses her Southerness when she needs it," Gray explains. "She knows how to use it to her advantage, and she knows how to escape it. I'm like that: I think every Southerner living in New York is a little like Holly Golightly."

Southern Discomfort runs through May 27, only on Mondays at 8 p.m. SoHo Playhouse, $20.

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