Sylvia Star Robert Sella Reveals His Inspirations in Creating Showstopping Socialite Phyllis
December 4th, 2015
by Robert Sella
Drama Desk winner Robert Sella is leaving audience in hysterics over at Broadway's Sylvia. Sella plays three roles in the show: Tom (a dog park pal of Matthew Broderick's Greg), Phyllis (a school friend of Julie White's Kate) and Leslie (Kate's gender-fluid therapist).
Each creation is a joy and a treasure but it's Sella's performance as alcoholic socialite Phyllis, who drops in to visit with Kate only to be traumatized by Sylvia, that stops the show with exit
BroadwayBox caught up with Sella to hear from him about the three biggest building blocks he used in creating the super-memorable character.
The first foundation of Phyllis for sure is that A.R. Gurney wrote these really funny, interesting creatures. I had great material to work with—all these delightful little clues as to what she’s like. She has this fabulous, strange Upper East Side view of the world, and it’s so other from the character we met in Kate. He’s gone out on a limb with the three characters I portray, and especially Phyllis because it is indicted in the script that all three characters be played by one man. It’s fun and subversive on his part.
Another muse came from a time in New York Society that began with Truman Capote’s Swans, like Slim Keith and Lee Radziwill. I definitely thought of those women and looked at pictures of them and saw how they carried themselves and how they wore their designer gowns. These women were impossibly chic and smart and connected; and I’m not sure Phyllis is on their level by any stretch of the imagination but that is the circle she aspired to. She goes to the Colony Club and 21, and she attends the galas, and they’re doing their best. Kate says to Phyllis, “I heard you and Hamilton are the toast of the East Side.” And Phyllis responds, “Oh, we circulate.” I’m not sure before she married Hamilton Cutler, she was of that world but she’s definitely taken on that role. She’s a part of this Protestant lineage Gurney writes so well in some of his other plays.
Then I also just wanted to have a sense of fun in a theatrical way. I knew I was never going to be the kind of actor that would come on and for a long time audiences would be like, ‘Well that is a woman and I don't know who that woman is.’ I don't think I have that gift so I wanted to have fun with it. To be honest, there are a couple of characters in Jerry Herman’s Mame that inspired me. Gloria Upson (who is engaged to Patrick when he grows older) washed her hair in beer and lives in an enclave in Connecticut where they don’t want anyone who isn’t like them to move in, and I think Phyllis has one toe in that pool. Then there’s Vera Charles, the flamboyant actress who has a problem with drinking and Phyllis, god bless her, is struggling with that as well. So there is some of that more sparkly, shiny part of the portrayal that I get from that lineage of vivid women who were on the edge. They are never as composed as the swans I spoke of before, but they have a grandness and superiority that we often see in the theatre. I tried to weave all those things together to bring Phyllis to life.
Hurry over to the Cort Theatre before January 3 to see Robert Sella (and his trio of Tony-winning co-stars) in Sylvia.