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Steven Culp: Skyping the Part in "Old Times"

(c) Washington Post Lifestyle

May 25, 2011

By Jane Horwitz

Neither Artistic Director Michael Kahn at the Shakespeare Theatre Company nor actor Steven Culp in Los Angeles had time to meet for an audition. So, in a technological leap forward for Kahn, they convened via Skype in the New York office of casting director Laura Stanczyk in March. Kahn needed to see whether Culp was right for the role of Deeley in Harold Pinter's three-character play "Old Times," running through July 3 at the Lansburgh Theatre.

Kahn wasn't comfortable using Skype alone, so Stanczyk set up the computer/video connection between Kahn and Culp. As anyone who's used Skype knows, such confabs don't always go smoothly. "He kept freezing and going, and freezing and going," says Kahn of Culp's reading of a monologue from the play. "It looked a little bit like somebody doing break-dancing but it seemed, in the middle of all of that, that he was doing a good job."

Though Culp, a Virginia Beach native, has a long theatrical resume, he's best known for his TV work as a hapless husband on "Desperate Housewives," the deputy mayor on "The Chicago Code" and, for those who remember, the hardboiled Republican speaker of the House on "The West Wing." Culp had never used Skype, either, so he practiced with it and took the advice of colleagues who told him to put a light above his computer to illuminate his face, and to sit on a high, straight-backed chair to avoid the weird, fisheye view offered by built-in computer cameras.

In Pinter's 1971 play, Deeley and his wife Kate (Tracy Lynn Middendorf) play host to Kate's long-ago roommate Anna (Holly Twyford). An evening of sexually charged verbal one-upmanship ensues. The script challenges both actors and directors with its constantly changing realities, says Culp.

"I don't know if I've ever done a play quite like this one before," he says. "The more that you play realistically moment to moment, that reality is shifting around you. It's almost like being in a waking dream sometimes." But, he adds, "when it goes well, there's something about the language. It just seems to soar."

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