NEW YORK — On the closing night of Annie Baker’s adaptation of “Uncle Vanya” at Soho Rep three years ago, Baker took the actress Georgia Engel aside and whispered in her ear: “I’m writing a play for you.”
That play is “John,” the comedy-drama at the Signature Theater. Engel, 67, plays Mertis, the chatty innkeeper of a gewgaw-strewn bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg. It is more or less Engel’s first lead role in a professional career that has spanned some 40 years.
Sitting in her dressing room before a matinee performance of “John,” Engel was asked to describe what it meant to finally tackle a principal part. She paused. Then, as her eyes went wide and wet with tears, she paused some more.
“It fills my heart very much,” she said quietly.
Time has dealt gently with Engel. She remains slim and vibrant, with finely molded cheekbones, fluttering lashes and a corona of strawberry blond hair. In person, she is almost unsettlingly kind and still speaks in that sweetly mewing voice — half angel, half kitten — that made her famous as Georgette Franklin, the lighthearted, air-headed window dresser she played on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
In her 60s, she is enjoying a string of theatrical successes, first as a librarian in Will Eno’s “Middletown,” then as a nanny in “Uncle Vanya” and now as Mertis, a role that, as Charles Isherwood wrote in his review for The New York Times, she plays with “infinite grace.”
Grace, the godly kind, is central to Engel’s understanding of the world. “Grace has been shown me all my life,” she said. She doesn’t speak much of her particular faith — she is a committed Christian Scientist — but she believes firmly in divine intervention.
The daughter of an admiral in the Coast Guard, she was born in Washington in 1948 and studied dance throughout her childhood and adolescence. After majoring in theater at the University of Hawaii, she moved to New York and was soon cast in the replacement company of “Hello Dolly,” alongside Phyllis Diller and Ethel Merman.
Weeks after that show closed, she ran into the playwright John Guare, who offered her a role in the 1971 New York premiere of “The House of Blue Leaves” at the Truck and Warehouse Theater. It paid a dollar less than unemployment, but she took it anyway.
When that theater burned down, producers moved the show to Los Angeles, where Mary Tyler Moore spotted her, inaugurating “a lifetime of happy television work,” which has also included recurring roles on “Coach” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.” “You can kind of see God’s hand in that, can’t you?” she said.
For Engel, a theater fire is a happy accident, the flooding of her apartment a chance to start fresh. She is grateful for all of those bit parts and character roles, she said, because “when you don’t have as much responsibility you can get to know everybody on the crew.”
A smaller part in “Middletown” meant she had time to bake pies for the whole company. Eno recalled that on the day Engel brought in her pies, “someone in the cast was out, so she brought in a smaller pie for that person, the next day.”
It was Engel’s turn as the “Middletown” librarian that brought her to the attention of Baker and the director Sam Gold, who immediately cast her in “Uncle Vanya” and then created “John” for her. While Gold described her “extremely powerful work ethic.”
After “John” closes, Engel will begin rehearsals for “Gotta Dance,” a Broadway-bound musical about a cadre of retirees who audition as halftime entertainment for the NBA. In another role written just for her, Engel plays Dorothy, a kindergarten teacher and hip-hop enthusiast.
She has been studying hip-hop dance for almost a year and has a favorite move, the Bankhead Bounce, which she demonstrated in her dressing room, bobbing in her chair and shuffling her shoulders.
She has no complaints about her career. She has loved “being an hors d’oeuvre or dessert or whatever you want to call it.” But now, she said, for the first time in her life, “I feel fully utilized.”