The actress Aya Cash arrived recently at a midtown theater styled like an on-trend street urchin: light gray felt hat, dark gray wool coat. Perched on a sofa, green juice in hand, she joked about her ill-advised tattoo (“in the Nineties place”) and the deep unhipness of her Subaru. But when it comes to theater, Cash doesn’t kid around.
“Theater is like my spiritual practice,” she said, almost apologetically. “It’s my temple. It’s my sangha. Whatever it is.”
This is sober stuff for a woman with a wild and relentless approach to comedy, from her breakout role as Kalina, the Slavic cosmetologist in Bruce Norris’s play The Pain and the Itch, to her current berth on FXX’s You’re the Worst as Gretchen, a self-absorbed publicist who once made the words “theater girl” sound like a shattering insult.
Yet Cash is a theater girl, a devoted one, and she’s choosing to spend her months off from You’re the Worst in The Light Years, a new play from the Debate Society that opens next week at Playwrights Horizons. Set in Chicago, the experimental drama straddles two periods and two world’s fairs, one in 1893, one in 1933. Cash plays two roles: Adeline, a frolicsome woman married to a genius electrician, and Ruth, a young mother trying to support her jingle-writing husband forty years later. Their stories are stealthily connected.
The piece is perhaps the most ambitious that the Debate Society, a devised-theater group known for its playfully literary work, has ever undertaken, and it’s the first not to star its authors, Paul Thureen and Hannah Bos. Enter Cash.
She first saw the Debate Society in 2010, in the detective story and racquetball duel Buddy Cop 2, which she attended at the request of her actor friend Michael Cyril Creighton. She thought it would be terrible. Instead, she was smitten with the company and its deadpan approach to genre tales. “I sort of became obsessed with them,” Cash said.
So when the Debate Society told her about The Light Years and mentioned it would be produced by Playwrights Horizons, the theater that launched her, “there was just no way I could say no.”
Then she read the script. She often gets hired to play women like Gretchen, “with a high level of snark and sarcasm, really damaged people,” she said. Yet Adeline and Ruth are, she thinks, snark-averse, so “full of hope and light.”
“Whoops,” she said. “Casting mistake.”
Cash grew up in San Francisco, the daughter of a writer mother and a father who once did street theater and is now a Buddhist priest. She fell into acting, hard, studying theater at the University of Minnesota and then waitressing for years in New York.
She was still taking orders at the Cowgirl during the run of The Pain and the Itch. She didn’t have a lead role, but she click-clacked away with most of the reviews and was eventually able to quit her day job.
Norris, who wrote Pain, remembers both her practicality (“she seems to look at the challenge of being an actor entirely unromantically”) and her “indomitable intelligence and fearlessness. She’s like a terrier, completely unintimidated by anyone,” he said.
More plays followed, in New York and at regional theaters. Some film and TV, too. It was a life and more or less a living. And then, a few years ago, the writer Stephen Falk was looking for a female lead for You’re the Worst, a romantic comedy he’d created, designed to feel “more real and more honest and less glossy,” he said. He wanted Cash, whom he considered poised and beautiful but also “kind of a little down and dirty.” The studio wanted someone “a little sweeter, a little less dangerous.” Falk triumphed, and Cash’s Gretchen wears her damage like a statement necklace.
But in her day-to-day life, Cash isn’t much like the sharp-tongued, borderline alcoholic Gretchen. She lives quietly with her husband, a documentary filmmaker, and their dog. She barely drinks. She reads a lot. But she’s sterner and saltier than her buoyant Light Years characters. She exists, she thinks, “yeah, definitely in between.”
It’s that clash of hard edge and kind heart that makes her so captivating to watch. Bos, who’d written the parts of Adeline and Ruth for herself but was forced to drop out due to family commitments, thought immediately of Cash for her replacement. “She’s really strong as a person and onstage,” Bos said. “And I really like her.”
Cash is still feeling her way into the twin parts. She’s balancing the practicalities of playing two roles — finding a distinctive walk and voice and gestural vocabulary for each — with something a little more mystical. So far, it seems to be working. “She sparkles,” the director of The Light Years, Oliver Butler, wrote in an email. (And no, he doesn’t see casting her as a mistake.) “She is deeply humble and also radiant.”
During previews, Cash had a couple of nights that didn’t go so well, “like you show up and God doesn’t talk to you and it’s so horrible,” she said. But on other nights, “something just flows through you,” she said. “You actually can do no wrong because you’re just there and it’s right.”
Her Light Years characters are in keeping with a resolution she made last year. After the November elections, and given what she feels they revealed about attitudes toward women, Cash decided she would “no longer play someone who’s there to get fucked or there to be desired without any sort of real story of her own.”
She goes back and forth on how much acting matters at this political moment. “Like, sometimes it doesn’t feel like it makes sense,” she said. But she’s come to believe “that art is the gateway to empathy, and I just think that’s really important right now.”
So important that she jokes about getting “Empathy Whore” as another tattoo. Chances are, she’d make it look great.