Jan Maxwell, the fiercely passionate, adoringly reviewed New York stage actress who earned five Tony Award nominations in seven years, including two in one season, died Sunday at her home in Manhattan. She was 61.
The death was confirmed by her husband, the actor and playwright Robert Emmet Lunney, who said the cause was leptomeningeal disease, a consequence of her struggle with breast cancer.
She received the original cancer diagnosis in 2006, he said, and learned that it had returned, in metastatic form, in 2013. Maxwell announced her retirement from the stage in 2015, telling Time Out magazine that it was because “the kinds of roles I was being offered were just — I’d been there and done that.” Her last performance was as Galactia, a 16th-century Venetian painter who fights back when her art angers the government, in “Scenes From an Execution,” at Atlantic Stage 2 in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.
“It is probably my favorite role,” Maxwell said in the same interview. “She’s so mean, so ruthless. I love that she’s such a hard-core genius.”
Maxwell was a longtime favorite of critics. Ben Brantley of The New York Times, for one, praised her again and again. In 2005, when she played the world-weary Baroness of Vulgaria in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (the role led to her first Tony nomination and a Drama Desk award), he called her “the real heroine for anyone who demands wit and sophistication from a Broadway production.”
Brantley later described her performance in Joe Orton’s grim comedy “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” (2006) as “a brave, vanity-free journey into pathos,” establishing her as “one of our most ingenious actresses.”
Maxwell received a Drama Desk Award nomination for that off-Broadway role, even though she created a stir by giving notice before the end of the run, reportedly because she had found her co-star Alec Baldwin difficult to work with.
Her most celebrated season culminated with two Tony nominations in 2010: for best performance by a leading actress in a play, a revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s “The Royal Family,” in which she played Broadway’s reigning goddess and daughter of an acting family’s matriarch, played by Rosemary Harris; and for best performance by a featured actress in a play, a revival of Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor,” in which she played the temperamental wife of an opera star, played by Anthony LaPaglia.
Her “Royal Family” performance brought her a Drama Desk Award.
Maxwell made her final Broadway appearance — also to rave reviews — in the 2011 revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s “Follies” as the chorus girl turned trophy wife who sings “Could I Leave You?”
Janice Elaine Maxwell was born on Nov. 20, 1956, in Fargo, North Dakota, the fifth of six children of Ralph B. Maxwell, a district court judge, and the former Elizabeth Fargusson, who later became an Environmental Protection Agency lawyer.
Jan attended Minnesota State University, Moorhead, which was across the North Dakota state line only 1 mile from home. She left college just short of graduation and, with $2,000 from her parents, moved to New York.
“I think I probably stared at a wall for three months, and I spent the next 10 years being scared,” she told The Washington Post in 2011, when “Follies” was at the Kennedy Center.
She worked as a script reader, she recalled, and was part of the Paper Bag Players, a New York theater company for children.
In 1990, she was “about to leave New York, about to pack it in and go to Seattle,” where theater friends were having better luck, she told The Post. Then she was offered a replacement role in “City of Angels,” a musical by Cy Coleman and Larry Gelbart set in 1940s Hollywood. That was her Broadway debut.
She followed that by taking over the lead role in Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa” (1992). Then she was cast in the acclaimed 1997 Broadway revival of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” which starred Janet McTeer. Maxwell played Kristine Linde, the heroine’s best friend, toughened but in need of a favor.
It was mostly smooth sailing from there. Maxwell played Captain von Trapp’s fiancee, Elsa, opposite Richard Chamberlain, in “The Sound of Music” (1998) and starred in a Neil Simon comedy, “The Dinner Party” (2000), before going on to a decade of high-profile shows and honors.
Her other Tony nominations were for “Coram Boy” (2004), in which she played an ice-cold housekeeper in an 18th-century orphanage, and “Follies.”
Maxwell remained just as busy in off-Broadway roles. A fan of the aggressively political British playwright Howard Barker, she appeared in his “Victory: Choices in Reaction” and “The Castle” as well as “Scenes From an Execution.”
“Jan liberated the self from the ego” in the Barker plays, Richard Romagnoli, who directed her in all three for the Potomac Theater Company, said in an interview Monday. “She appeared on stage without protection, disarming herself and, in the process, the audience.” After her performances, he added, “we felt purged and redeemed.”
Her other off-Broadway productions included Alan Ayckbourn’s “House” and “Garden” (both 2002) at City Center; Arthur Kopit’s “Wings” (2010) at Second Stage; Anthony Giardina’s “The City of Conversation” (2015), in which she played a Washington hostess outraged by political leaders; and Israel Horovitz’s “My Old Lady” (2003) at the Promenade Theater.
Even then, she was turning demanding critics into fans. John Simon wrote in New York magazine, “This actress can do anything — except make one false move.”
After her retirement from the stage, Maxwell kept a promise she had made to herself to do more television. Her last appearances, in 2016 and 2017, included episodes of “Madame Secretary,” “Gotham” and the horror series “BrainDead.”
But she had always acknowledged the theater professional’s debt to occasional television paychecks. She appeared on daytime soap operas and on the original “Law & Order.”
When that series was going off the air, in 2010, she wrote a tribute to it for the Op-Ed page of The Times. “I killed someone,” it began. “It happened in 1994. And every three years after that. I killed again and again, whether I felt like it or not.”
In addition to Lunney, she is survived by a son, Will Maxwell-Lunney; three sisters, Susan Fitzgerald, Nancy Maxwell and Peggy Maxwell; and two brothers, Bill Maxwell and the director and playwright Richard Maxwell.
“I feel very lucky to be an actress,” Maxwell told The Times cheerfully in 2008. “I have no other talents whatsoever.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.