When Mary Testa heard that the one-woman play “My Brilliant Divorce” was written for British actress and comedy writer Dawn French, she lost any trepidation she might have had about the role.
“I thought if it was written for Dawn French, it just has to be good,” said the two-time Tony Award nominee, who returns to Asolo Repertory Theatre after winning a lot of fans there last summer as a standout in the ensemble of “Love, Loss and What I Wore.”
“I don’t think Dawn French would put up anything that wasn’t good,” she said.
French was one-half of the British comedy team of French and Saunders, and helped partner Jennifer Saunders create the long-running hit “Absolutely Fabulous.”
The 2001 play by Geraldine Aron, which has been presented around the world — but only one other time in the United States — gives Testa an opportunity to be a storyteller and play about 17 different characters who factor into the tale that Angela shares with the audience. That’s part of the concept of director Michael Donald Edwards, producing artistic director of Asolo Rep.
In the original production, Angela was British and married to a British man. In this production, Angela is now an American married to a Brit, which Edwards said changes the dynamics of the relationship and the character’s story.
“Geri was open to Americanizing it a little more fully than it had been,” and to tailoring to make the best use of Testa’s skills, he said. “Now, all the issues around marriage and divorce and pain and isolation are magnified by her being an American in London.”
Only one of the people Angela deals with in the play is American, said Testa, who has been working on her Irish, Scottish, British and Indian accents during rehearsals.
The change also helps the play better fit in with the Asolo’s five-year plan to explore the “American Character” on stage.
“We began our season with the Great Divorce in ‘1776’ and we are ending it with a ‘Brilliant Divorce,’” Edwards said. Both are dealing with the intersection of American and British culture and morés.
But such descriptions make it all sound far more highbrow and serious than it really is, Edwards said.
Testa describes Angela as “sarcastic, funny, scared, a lot of women rolled up into one. That’s the beauty of this piece. A lot of women and men, too, are going to see themselves in this character.”
The play is set in a theater, where Angela has a story to tell the audience.
“She needs to tell this story,” Edwards said. “It’s the first time she’s putting it together. Her friends and the audience, all they know is that she got divorced. She needs to tell you what happened, and you find out why her divorce is brilliant.”
She may be alone on stage, but Testa isn’t really alone. Some of the other characters appear as pre-recorded voices in phone calls or in other ways throughout the play.
She worked via Skype with Paul Meier, who provides dialect training and coaching. “I’m pretty facile with that stuff, but he was tremendously helpful,” Testa said.
She started preparing for the show while rehearsing and performing Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” with Christopher Lloyd for the Classic Stage Company in New York. Edwards went to New York to start rehearsals during the day while Testa was performing at night.
The actress, who earned Tony Award nominations for her roles in “On the Town” and “42nd Street,” is so in demand that Edwards was worried that Testa wouldn’t be able to do the play because of a Broadway or television offer.
“But no Broadway shows for Mary,” she joked, acknowledging, however, that she has had an incredible span of time with steady work since she was in Sarasota last summer.
“I have known since December what my eight months were leading up to this,” she said, mentioning some concert programs, a couple of television pilots that didn’t get picked up, and then the Brecht play.
After “My Brilliant Divorce,” she’ll be featured in the Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas opera “Anna Nicole” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in September. It features a mix of opera and Broadway stars, including another Asolo Rep veteran, James Barbour, who starred in “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Edwards got the script for Aron’s play right before Testa came to Sarasota for “Love, Loss.” Once he saw how audiences reacted to her performance, he offered her “My Brilliant Divorce.”
“Mary popped. She touched people. I had people come up to me and say ‘Who is that? She is amazing.’ We’re just so happy that she came back.”
“My Brilliant Divorce” opens June 26 and continues through July 14 at Asolo Repertory Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets are $20-$43 for previews June 23 and 25, and $24-$72 for regular performances. For more information: 351-8000; asolorep.org