NEW YORK -- Few people should be able to accuse Boyd Gaines and Kathleen McNenny of not having any onstage chemistry. That's because it's undeniable in real life.
The actors, who met 20 years ago this summer and went on to marry and have a child, are doing something new this month: Appearing together as a couple for the first time on a New York stage.
"You always want to work with people that are better than you," says McNenny during a joint interview. "Not only do I get to work with someone who is better – who's really, really great to be onstage with – but I also feel safe. I don't feel intimidated by it because it's my husband."
Her four-time Tony Award-winning husband takes issue with that. "I'm certainly not better than she is," he says. "God knows that is not true. I'm always dumbstruck by how creative Kathy is and how much she brings to the table."
New York theatergoers will finally be able to see the husband-and-wife team up close as they star in Manhattan Theatre Club's "An Enemy of the People," a new version of Henrik Ibsen's play opening Sept. 27 on Broadway.
Gaines plays a public-minded doctor in a small town who discovers the water supply for the public spa is contaminated and may have made tourists – the community's economic lifeblood – ill. But his efforts to clean up the mess pit his ethics against political cowards and the media. His family suffers – including his wife, played by McNenny.
Gaines and McNenny say their personal relationship gave them a head start when it came to approaching the play. It was an instant intimacy they wouldn't have had if other actors were cast as their spouses.
"The play is about a marriage that is at least 20 years old. It's about a marriage that has children. It's about a marriage that's had struggle," McNenny says. "The marriage is very complicated. So if we come in with people we didn't know, there's a period of time before you even start to build with that. With us, a lot of steps got cut out of the process."
FALLING IN LOVE
Fitting for a pair of actors, Gaines and McNenny first became smitten while onstage.
They had been paired as the lovers Luciana and Antipholus of Ephesus in the 1992 Public Theater production of William Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" in Central Park.
They had briefly met before while shooting the 1991 miniseries "A Woman Named Jackie," but it was really when "The Comedy of Errors" director Caca Rosset set up private meetings with his cast that they first connected.
Gaines went first to meet Rosset and when he came out, McNenny was waiting her turn. Rosset reintroduced them and asked the pair, "So, do you think you can fall in love?"
"We both shrugged our shoulders and went, `Well, sure.' That's our job. We were going to act that," Gaines recalled. McNenny, too, was game: "I said, `Sure, I'll fall in love with him. Fine.'"
After the show ended, they began dating.
McNenny, 50, went on to plenty of TV shows and off-Broadway work and was in the film "The School of Rock." She made it to Broadway in "Coram Boy," "The Constant Wife," "After the Fall," "A Few Good Men" and was most recently in Mike Nichols' "Death of a Salesman."
Her 59-year-old husband moved on to win Tonys for "Gypsy," "Contact," "She Loves Me" and "The Heidi Chronicles," and recent roles opposite John Lithgow in "The Columnist" and James Earl Jones in "Driving Miss Daisy."
Over the years, they have shared a stage only rarely. There was a two-night benefit on Broadway in 2002 and a play at the Westport Country Playhouse a year later. ("We intersected almost zero onstage," she says.) They also were in A.R. Gurney's "Sylvia" in 2010 at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J. But that's about it, until now.
Why such few times sharing a stage? "First of all, Boyd can do musicals and I can't," says McNenny.
"Well, they let me do them occasionally. I don't know if I can do them," says her husband, modestly. "Certainly not well."
Other factors in the mix include a stubborn lack of great roles for women and the need to have at least one parent at home to raise their 14-year-old daughter, Leslie.
"My opportunities in the city are just different," says McNenny. "My husband has four Tonys and I don't have any. So he's going to be asked to do things in a different way than I am."
Gaines and McNenny try to see each other's work as much as possible and like to help prepare the other for roles. For "An Enemy of the People," they've both gotten to run lines together for the same scenes.
Over the years, they've watched other actors play their spouses without much fuss. "My feeling is, `Whoever they chose, they chose for a reason,'" says Gaines. "I don't tend to have sour grapes."
But McNenny feels differently this time.
"Actually, I would have been very sad to watch somebody else play this particular part in this play," she says, turning to her husband. "I think I might have been jealous. I might have been. I can't say I've ever felt that way before with any show you've been in."
Perhaps that feeling will translate into onstage sparks, but neither veteran is sweating the audience's reaction. "Hopefully, they'll either believe us as a couple or they won't," says Gaines.