After 'Girls,' Abbott goes back to his roots.
NEW YORK -- With his fuller beard and his longer hair slicked back under a Yankees cap, Christopher Abbott is hardly recognizable as the character he played on "Girls'': Charlie, the sweet, docile boyfriend of Allison Williams' Marnie. Shortly after the Season 2 finale in March, Abbott abruptly announced that he was leaving the show.
His return to the public eye is in a small, downtown play far from the hoopla that surrounds "Girls,'' Lena Dunham's HBO series. But, for him, the characters are much closer to home: Since Sept. 5, he has brought both rage and tenderness to the mercurial alpha male Tony in "Where We're Born,'' at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. "It's the most important project I've done,'' he said.
The drama, which concludes its run Saturday, is one segment of "The Hill Town Plays,'' a cycle by Lucy Thurber being staged at five theaters in Greenwich Village. They focus on a girl from a poor Western Massachusetts town struggling in vain to escape her roots.
When Abbott, 27, read the script of "Where We're Born,'' he identified with Lilly, the protagonist, he said, torn between her new life as a college student and her working-class past. He ached for her hometown cousin Tony, at once macho and fragile, struggling against his nature to do the right thing. "A lot of those people are people I grew up with,'' he said.
Abbott spent his early years in Chickahominy, a working-class, heavily Italian-American neighborhood in Greenwich, Conn., where he lived in a six-family house across the street from a funeral parlor. No one watched much television in his family, except for the occasional baseball game. His parents worked long, hard hours -- his mother in various odd jobs, his father at a gas station.
"These are people you do not see in theater often, or anywhere, for that matter,'' Abbott said. "These kinds of towns, all over the country, can easily go unnoticed.''
He and Thurber have been friends for nearly a decade. They bonded over their similar upbringings: his in Connecticut, hers in Massachusetts. "Coming from poverty, from a working-class family, with not as much access to education -- you don't find that many of us in the arts in New York City,'' Thurber said. "Where we both come from, people don't have a lot of options -- you have manual labor, the military, dealing drugs. I recognize in Chris somebody who has found that there is a life-or-death quality to theater, an urgency.''
She sees him as a perfect complement to her work: "He just, on a cellular level, knows the people I'm writing about. He understands their rhythms, their movements.''
When Thurber and Rattlestick's artistic director, David Van Asselt, approached Abbott last year about acting in one of the "Hill Town Plays,'' he immediately agreed. And he threw himself into the process. "He comes to rehearsal even when he is not in the scene,'' said Jackson Gay, the director.
Even before he decided to depart "Girls,'' his character on the show was divisive. Charlie is "a soggy pushover,'' one viewer wrote on Indiewire.
"The thing that most people have seen him in is not the color that is most present in Chris,'' said Betty Gilpin, who plays Lilly in "Where We're Born.'' "For him to be written off as the 'nice guy' is an injustice in my mind. He's got that bull in a china shop in him.''
No single catalytic moment made him decide to leave "Girls,'' Abbott explained. It was more of a gradual process of realizing that his priorities as an actor had shifted. "The world that Lena wrote was very real, especially in New York,'' he said.
"But it wasn't as relatable for me on a personal level. It's not that I only like to play roles I know to a T, but there's something satisfying about playing parts where you really relate to the characters.''