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A Risky Walk Into Darkness

(c) San Francisco Chronicle

April 22, 2007

By Sam Hurwitt

It's been a long time since actor Steven Culp was last in an American Conservatory Theater production. It was 1994 when he played repressed homosexual Mormon Joe Pitt in Mark Wing-Davey's staging of both parts of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" at the Marines Memorial Theatre, while the Geary was still closed for repairs needed after the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Now that Culp has returned to ACT to star in the West Coast premiere of "Blackbird," the Los Angeles actor is far better known for playing Marcia Cross' long-suffering husband, Rex Van De Kamp, in ABC's "Desperate Housewives." He was already a familiar screen presence by the time "Housewives" hit in 2004, holding down simultaneous recurring roles as a CIA agent on "JAG," a doctor's boyfriend on "ER," a space Marine on "Star Trek: Enterprise" and the Republican speaker of the house on "The West Wing." He'd even played Bobby Kennedy twice, in the 1996 TV movie "Norma Jean & Marilyn" and the 2000 feature film "Thirteen Days."

"Blackbird," which in February won the Laurence Olivier Award for best new play, is a tense two-person drama by Scottish playwright David Harrower. Directed by Loretta Greco, the ACT production co-stars New York actress Jessi Campbell as Una, a young woman who dredges up some very old business with Culp's middle-aged Ray -- business so touchy and difficult that patrons younger than 16 might want to stay home and catch up on "Housewives" reruns instead.

"I've told my friends who are coming out, 'I don't want you to know anything about the play,' " Culp says after a long day of rehearsal made doubly long by the fact that the two characters remain onstage for the 90-minute play without intermission. "I want people to come in without any preconceptions, just take them through that emotional journey instead of, 'We're going to go see this play about ...' But I think that in this play, the labels we put on things, the way we structure what we remember, the stories that we tell ourselves when we're reconstructing our lives, what society tells us and therapists tell us -- all that stuff gets stripped away, and what you're left with is the unexplainable and sometimes terrible mysteries of the human heart."

The play goes into some pretty dark places, and getting under the skin of this character might make some actors' own skin crawl. But Culp relishes the chance to play troubled and troubling characters, evidenced by a resume filled with driven true believers whose agendas often bring them into conflict with protagonists, and deeply conflicted individuals struggling with dark secrets.

"I've been fortunate enough that I've been able to do characters like that in a lot of different venues, and they just kind of keep coming my way," Culp says. "The more complex and contradictory the better, because those are the most interesting characters to play. That's what I'm drawn to. 'The human heart in conflict with itself' -- isn't that what Faulkner said? I don't feel it's my job to tell the audience what opinion they should have about is this a good guy or a bad guy. My job is to make that decision as hard for them to make as I can."

This is the first time Culp has made it back to the stage since his now 5-year-old twins were born.

His most recent play was Yasmina Reza's "Art" at South Coast Rep in 2000. TV and film have been keeping him busy in recent years, and it was actually a side effect of his screen work that led to him being cast in "Blackbird."

"I did this series for ABC called 'Traveler,' a one-hour thriller," he says. "It was supposed to premiere midseason, but now they're holding back till the end of May, and we're going to take the place of 'Lost' on Wednesday nights. But until the show airs, contractually I can't really go out for TV pilots, I can't do recurring roles on series, I can't really do all the stuff that has kept me going for the last few years. The movies were not exactly knocking down my door, so I said, 'OK, what can I do during this time?' I contacted ACT, just to see what they were doing. I had read the little blurb about the play 'Blackbird,' and that was all I knew about it. ... They e-mailed me the script, and I went, 'Oh my God, what have I done?' I did have the thought, 'Am I up for this? I don't know if I can do this.' Then, of course, I had to pursue it."

After he read for the part and worked a bit with director Greco, it seemed like a good fit all around, and so Culp is working on his English accent for this disturbing little nugget of a play shortly after his family flick "Firehouse Dog" hit theaters and just before the "Traveler" pilot hits TV. While Joe Mantello's U.S. premiere production of "Blackbird" at the Manhattan Theater Club in New York (which opened earlier this month with Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill) removed certain details in the play to make it less British, Greco's staging at ACT keeps all the cultural specificity intact.

"America is kind of a land of reinvention, more so than Great Britain, and the fact that my character has totally reinvented himself before the play starts has more resonance if it's happening there and not here," Culp says. "Loretta said, and I totally agree, when you're specific about these things, about class and locale, the more universal it is. When you homogenize it, I think it loses something."

One thing that's likely to be universal is that the provocative and thorny "Blackbird" will push a lot of people's buttons.

"It's been a long time since I've done a play where I'm not sure if, when we get to the end, they're going to pelt us with fruit or not," Culp says. "I think people are going to walk out of the theater having a lot of different opinions. I hope."

Blackbird begins previews Friday, opens May 2 and runs through May 27 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. $13.50-$81.50. (415) 749-2228,

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