‘Bold Enough to Go Full-Tilt’: Gabby Beans Is Playing to the Balcony

Onstage in Lincoln Center Theater’s maximalist revival of “The Skin of Our Teeth” last spring were a giant brontosaurus puppet, a full-scale amusement park slide and a stage-spanning verdant field in full bloom. But it was the towering performance from a 5-foot-3 force of nature named Gabby Beans that made the production a must-see.

Taking on the role of Sabina in this messy epic by Thornton Wilder, nebulously set between prehistory and the end of the world, is a hard enough task for any actor. And though Tallulah Bankhead, who originated the role in 1942, left big shoes to fill, Beans, in her Broadway debut, stuffed them with a gargantuan presence and a knowingly ridiculous voice, picking up a Tony nomination for lead actress in a play. (Alexis Soloski, in her review for The Times, described Beans as a “ferocious actress” whose “ample” comic gifts “come beribonned and frilled.”)

While growing up, Beans said her mother, a fan of classic Hollywood actresses, would call her “Tallulah Bashula” and, because of her early comedic flashes, liken her to Lucille Ball — apt comparisons for anyone who saw Beans darting around the stage in Lileana Blain-Cruz’s production, pausing to flash her expressive eyes and deliver a big, vaudevillian one-liner.

Beans, with James Vincent Meredith, in “The Skin of Our Teeth.” In her review, the critic Alexis Soloski called Beans “a ferocious actress” whose ample comic gifts “come beribboned and frilled.”Credit…Richard Termine for The New York Times

She later added Eartha Kitt to that list of brassy acting inspirations during an interview at a coffee shop in Chelsea a few weeks ago, before a dress rehearsal of Gracie Gardner’s “I’m Revolting.” (The Atlantic Theater Company production, currently in previews and scheduled to open Oct. 5, is Beans’s first show since “The Skin of Our Teeth” closed in May.) “She is the brightest star in my artistic constellation,” Beans said of Kitt. “She had a way of relating to the audience, and it’s really special to see someone hold everyone’s attention with their presence.”

The operative word is “presence,” which Beans has plenty of. Seemingly unafraid to make bold choices, and bolstered by pure charisma and a sharp eye for comedy, hers is a type of performance that hearkens back to when theater was the only way to see personality writ large.

One of her “I’m Revolting” co-stars, Patrick Vaill, put it this way: “The acting style of the time we’re in is rooted in doing less; a glance, a shift in physicality. We don’t have actors playing to the balcony, so when someone does that, it’s invigorating.”

In Gardner’s dark comedy, about patients at a skin cancer clinic, Beans’s comedic chops are tighter, this time blended with the forceful compassion of the type-A older sister she plays.

Beans, left, and Alicia Pilgrim as her sister in Gracie Gardner’s dark comedy “I’m Revolting,” which opens Oct. 5 at the Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

“She understands the tone of storytelling very well and can throw herself into that, whatever it is,” the director, Knud Adams, said. “With confidence comes that transformational fearlessness where she knows what needs to be served and dives in headfirst.”

Both collaborators referenced Beans’s presence, onstage and off, with Vaill noting that “the performance is happening before you even realize it’s a performance,” and Adams, who said the role was hers as soon as she expressed interest, praising Beans as seeming “boundless in what she can take on.”

That limitlessness is a trait that also comes through in conversation, even if Beans is unaware of it, half-joking that she was grateful that she’d had no faith in herself for her “Skin of Our Teeth” audition.

“I got the audition through Lileana, because we’d worked together quite a bit, and she’s a friend,” explained Beans, who has appeared in several Off Broadway productions directed by Blain-Cruz, including “Anatomy of a Suicide” and “Marys Seacole.” “I read the play and, I’m going to be honest with you, thought, ‘OK, this play is weird, but this part! How are they going to cast someone who’s not famous?’ It made me go into the audition with a lot of freedom, so I did the craziest version I possibly could. It empowered me to make really big choices, and I felt free in a way I’d never felt before as an actor.”

Blain-Cruz said she first starting “keeping tabs” on Beans after seeing her in a non-equity showcase production of Sam Shepard’s “Curse of the Starving Class” at Williamstown Theater Festival in 2017, and has since cast her in four productions.

“I was excited, but not sure, about Gabby for ‘Skin,’ because it is such a particular role,” Blain-Cruz said. “But she came in and blew it out of the water. Her alacrity with language is stunning, and her moving the character between an exhausted lady-of-the-stage into this zany character voice revealed somebody who is willing and bold enough to go full-tilt.”

The director noted that, along with the other productions on which they’ve collaborated (including “Girls” at Yale Repertory Theater), Beans has excelled at “existing in different realities and times.” Blain-Cruz commended her as a “dramaturgically intelligent actor” who has become her muse, and whose “humor and intensity” she believes would perfectly suit a Yorgos Lanthimos film like “The Lobster.”

But before Gabby Beans became a performer, she was Gabby Beans, Army brat. Born in Georgia to a physician mother and a father who was in the military, she “kind of grew up in Northern Virginia,” also living in Louisiana and Hawaii before settling in a German ski town in the Bavarian Alps, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, for high school. She was accepted to Columbia University, which brought her back stateside to study neuroscience and theater.

After three years of working at a neonatal intensive care unit and doing student plays at Columbia, she decided against medical school, instead opting for a master’s degree in classical acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, a city she fell in love with while growing up in Europe. She credits seeing Fiona Shaw in a 2009 production of “Mother Courage” at the National Theater, and Kristin Scott Thomas in the Old Vic’s 2014 production of “Electra,” as formative theatrical experiences.

The actress, who opts for “a monastic life” whenever she’s working, has a passion for the city’s house and techno music scene.Credit…Desmond Picotte for The New York Times

“It’s really nurturing as a young actor to be in a country whose most famous writer is a playwright,” she said. “There’s just a different sensibility around theater, an awareness of and value for the work of actors that I think is not quite true here unless you’re incredibly famous.”

Though she has a deep knowledge of actors past and present, it becomes clear, listening to Beans discuss her other interests, that she has a life beyond the stage. She loves the structure and discipline required of acting — a holdover from her upbringing, she said she opts for “a monastic life” whenever working — but she lights up with an insider’s passion when describing her love for New York City’s house and techno scene.

“I’m into the beep-beep-boop music,” she said, smiling. “I grew up in Germany, so how could I not be?”

Back in Bavaria, she and her friends would travel to Munich for its “debaucherous” club scene. Here, it’s electronic music hot spots like Elsewhere and Nowadays in her Bushwick neighborhood, where she’s lived since 2016. What first drew her to the scene was footwork, a type of electronic music out of Chicago that she’d hear in grungy Brooklyn warehouses. But she hasn’t kept up with that scene lately, she said, because of the pandemic, her busy schedule and the effects of gentrification.

“A lot of my favorite parties went away,” Beans said. “The small record labels throwing them were priced out of the spaces. There used to be all these D.I.Y. venues on Kent Avenue before they turned into the Vice offices. That was my scene: fast-paced Black electronic music in a warehouse, where the bar would be a cart table with a handle of Everclear and a bottle of Sprite. Once those places went away, I wasn’t as present in the clubs.”

Warehouse parties, acting, Eartha Kitt adoration, her recent turn toward writing and directing short films with a magical realism bent: “It’s all the same, all just about being alive and feeling free,” she said. “It’s all me.”

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