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Gould Takes A Chance In 'Don Juan'

January 19, 1987|RAY LOYND

Harold Gould has been acting, largely in television, for 20 years. You know the face (particularly the Lincolnesque nose) but perhaps not the name.

He was Valerie Harper's father in "Rhoda" in the '70s. He was Henry Kissinger in "Washington: Behind Closed Doors." He was thrice nominated for an Emmy, has done Broadway (Neil Simon and Jules Feiffer) and has made occasional movies.

Gould, in short, has worked the marketplace with such diversion and consistency that, for the second time in a year, he's dropping everything to appear in Equity-Waiver theater.

This is an actor who really means it when he talks about his love of the stage.

Sure, he can afford to work for nothing. He's constantly doing commercial voice-overs. But Equity Waiver does not easily attract actors serenely secure in their industry careers. It's daunting enough to get a lousy review in a stage production at the Music Center, but the threat of a knock to a successful pro in a Waiver show is a risk most actors won't abide.

Last year, just days before co-starring opposite Katharine Hepburn on a CBS Movie-of-the-Week ("Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry"), Gould took to the stage at Los Angeles Theatre Center in Harold Pinter's "The Birthday Party." That production and his interpretation of the menacing character Goldberg were thrashed as timid in this newspaper, among others.

Did Gould care? Definitely.

"I don't read reviews of my work unless they're tacked up on a bulletin board and I can't avoid them," he said. "You see, a review is not the security thing it was to me when I started out. When I take on a character, I prepare my own game plan. I don't want to confront a critique that says I should fulfill another vision and then proceed to feel guilty about it."

Honest enough. But did Gould swear off L.A. theater? Gould is too confident a craftsman for that. Now through Feb. 22 at the Equity Waiver Room for Theatre, he takes on the Devil in "Don Juan in Hell"--the almost always unstaged third act of George Bernard Shaw's "Man and Superman."

Director Norman Cohen (who nurtured the Barbara Rush production "A Woman of Independent Means") is retaining the formal evening-wear, script-in-hand design format associated with the 1951 Charles Laughton staging, an SRO touring smash that featured Charles Boyer, Agnes Moorehead, Cedric Hardwicke and Laughton himself as the Devil. (It was Los Angeles that cradled that famous First Drama Quartette production, but it was New York that weeks later took on the show as its own.)

Room for Theater artistic co-directors Dolores Mann, Beverly Sanders and Sylvia Walden have also cast the four-character Shavian colloquy with Henry Darrow, Claudette Nevins and John Ingle (another voice-over actor and a former theater arts maven at Beverly Hills High School).

Gould, who quit a teaching career at UC Riverside at the age of 37 to become an actor, endured five grubby years working odd jobs and living in attic rooms before making a solid buck in the profession. He was lucky and talented enough to land his first film work in such well-known films as "Marnie" and "Inside Daisy Clover" in the mid-'60s.

Today, at 63 and looking a decade younger, he says his biggest advantage when he first came to Hollywood was a strong vocal presence. Unlike that of so many competing struggling actors, his diction made a strong impression on casting directors.

"That's why 'Don Juan in Hell' fascinated me," he said. "The language sparkles, cascades; it builds with such cumulative power. There is very little that I've done, in TV or elsewhere, that has challenged me like this. Shaw makes you exercise your mind and muscle--by muscle, I mean your lips, your jaw and tongue. The demands on those are so much more than common, everyday speech.

"Increasingly, the actor's craft is diminished because vocal toning is not demanded. This is reflected maddeningly in film acting. You hear so much mushy diction.

"This play also exercises me mentally to follow an idea through the thick underbrush of Shaw's rhetoric, to find the spine of the idea and make it clear to an audience. Rhythm, phrasing, volume, melody--Shaw makes an actor pull a lot of switches and levers. Modern audiences aren't used to sitting for two hours and listening. But what ideas!"

Shaw's idea of hell is the haven of earthly pleasures, not the Hell of Dante and Milton. And Gould feels that Shaw remarkably anticipates, through specific imagery, such contemporary subjects as molecular energy and contraception.

"There's a phrase," he asserted, "that reads 'the device of sterility,' dealing with male-female relationships. That was Shaw at the turn of the century. Imagine that."

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