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'Character Guy' : 'babbitt' Star Knows His Place

October 20, 1987|JANICE ARKATOV

Charles Hallahan is nothing if not objective.

"George isn't a nice guy at all," said the actor, who is playing the archetypal George Babbitt in "Babbitt: A Marriage," Ron Hutchinson's stage adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis classic (at the Taper through Saturday). "You can't make him noble, because--to be honest about it--he's an idiot. He's let himself go down the wrong path. But there has to be something understandable about him. When I first read the book in college, it was commonplace to (scorn) business people, and I'm afraid I was a little dismissive of him. But now I like the guy. Actually, I love him."

And, clearly, he loves playing him. "Doing this has been so exhilarating," Hallahan said. "But I've also started looking around lately, seeing where I might have gone in other directions. For instance, in the first speech he describes himself: 'kidding, laughing, upstanding, jolly, sweating, lend-a-hand good fellow.' So that's the first order of business: to cover those bases.

"When you theatricalize those general (qualities), you come up with a speech rhythm, hand signals: symbolic expressions of him--because he's driven, moves quickly, doesn't take the time to think things out. And doing that puts an impression on a play--especially a style play like this--that's difficult to remove. But I keep thinking, 'What if I'd taken a slightly harsher attack on the guy, not invented so much of what I call my 'boyish innocence' card, if I'd let him be a little more aware of what a crook he really is. . . ."

He smiled. "Nobody wants to hear that. They all say, 'Nah, everything's fine. Don't change a thing.' I understand. Doing something like this, there are so many elements, so much to do; you just can't quibble about one moment. Actually, that's what's nice about smaller parts: You sometimes get to focus more, be more detailed."

And smaller parts are something that Hallahan, 44, knows a lot about.

"There are the leading men and ladies, then there are the character guys. Of course, they work all the time, but you don't know their names--until they become Charlie Durning or Ken McMillan or Brian Dennehy. Otherwise, sure, you get type-cast.

"I had five years of regional theater (at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre) before this: I did lots of plays--nice guys, tough guys, all kinds of guys. But when I came down here, I realized that what they're buying is this (physicality), this Irish mug.

"So I started out playing uniformed cops, then plainclothesmen and undercover cops. Now I'm a three-piece-suit boss (on the NBC cop show "Hunter"). I also play coaches, bartenders, but I don't play doctors. The only person who ever cast me as a scientist was Mike Nichols in 'Silkwood.' And I don't get to play lawyers very often--though I think that will come as I get older. I know I could play the bejesus out of Romeo, but what would be the point? If you start getting angry about these things, you just give yourself an ulcer."

Hallahan shrugged. "A lot has to do with your expectations. I intend to act till the day I drop. Every time I get a new part, it's exciting--exciting to start over again."

Even if it opens him up to public scrutiny? "Reviews really don't make any difference," he said gently. "I have much harsher standards (for myself) than (Times critic) Dan Sullivan. I know when I'm good, I know when I'm bad--and I'm bad plenty of times. I'm mediocre most of the time. That's just the way it is.

"You work hard, but you can't expect always to be great. I've got 60-some plays under my belt. Of those, maybe five or six were great, 20 were pretty good, 30 were less so. Maybe a dozen were terrible."

Two of the standouts: his stints opposite Tyne Daly in "Come Back, Little Sheba" (Los Angeles Theatre Center, 1987) and his Los Angeles Drama Critics' Circle Award-winning performance as a hard-driving Irish warden in another Ron Hutchinson play: "Rat in the Skull" (Taper Too, 1986).

"There are cops and there are cops," he said with a sigh. "I've been doing Irish plays since day one, and I'm almost always disappointed, because the audience doesn't get it--the big 'it': the complicated nature involved in Irish/English interaction. In 'Rat,' people got it."

Almost as deeply as he did. "My family was intimately connected with this stuff--they came over here because of troubles there--and I grew up in the Irish ghetto of Philadelphia. Till I was 13, I didn't know there was anybody else in the world except Flanagans and Flahertys. And while that's part of my life that's really over, it's in the blood; you don't get away from it."

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