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Actor Edward Duke Is Writing His Own Ticket to Success : Stage: A once- struggling Briton has claimed fame by adapting the works of humorist P.G. Wodehouse, and he has changed and grown in the process.

March 05, 1990|NANCY CHURNIN

SAN DIEGO — It has been 10 years since Edward Duke became the eternal upper-class twit Bertie Wooster (think of Charlie Brown as a British aristocrat), Bertie's doughty and demanding Aunts Agatha and Dahlia ("totally unfit for human consumption") and, of course the incomparable Jeeves, the gentleman's gentleman who manages Bertie, living in dread that his charge will humiliate him by wearing a checked suit, in the one-man, 12-character show "Jeeves Takes Charge."

Duke said it may also be the last year for him in this showcase piece, produced by Charles Duggan at the Lyceum Stage in San Diego on Wednesday through March 25. But it will also be a hard show to let go. Based on the works of humorist P.G. Wodehouse and adapted by Duke himself, the show has been a fame-and-fortune ticket for the once-struggling British actor, now 36 years old.

After about 1,200 performances, the comic vehicle has also become the unlikely prism through which he has seen himself change and grow over the years.

In 1985, when Duke brought the show to Los Angeles, Times critic Dan Sullivan noted that there was "a hint of a corpse in the bedroom, so to speak."

Sullivan didn't know it, but there was a corpse of a sort. Duke's mother had recently died of cancer, followed shortly by his father dying of a heart attack, and Duke couldn't enter into the spirit of the show during that run.

Since then, Duke has delved more deeply into what he hastens to stress is still very much a light comedy. Jeeves, whom he said he never fully understood when he premiered the show a decade ago in the West End of London in 1980, is now very much drawn from his father, once a British diplomat in Tokyo, whom Duke said he never really understood while he was alive.

"I think Jeeves is very much my Dad," said Duke quietly in a San Diego Repertory Theatre office. "Extremely strait-laced, worried about what people thought of him. It's funny how grief takes hold. I couldn't find Jeeves until I found his affection for Bertie. He was a distant character like my father. He would never show his feelings, but they were there.

"When my dad retired, he liked nothing better than setting the table and polishing the silver. Since he died, maybe that's when Jeeves jelled for me."

He described Bertie Wooster, who had always come more easily to him, as being just like his mother--"mad as a hatter."

It was his identification with Bertie that first drew him to the project. Always a bit of a rebel, Duke at 24, had been expelled from what he calls "every respectable school," including Stonyhurst (home to other famous expelled alumni Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Laughton). He finished his schooling in Japan, where his father was stationed, and moved back to London determined to be an actor.

He was grateful in a way for the expulsions.

"If I had stayed, I would have turned into an upper-class twit like one of my characters. Now I can see them from a detached perspective."

But he wasn't as happy about the roles he was playing in the theater: box office clerk and the lighting person running follow spots on singer Tommy Steele in the Palladium.

"I started to read Wodehouse to take my mind off the obsessive frustration of not being given my chance," said Duke. "Then I decided I wanted to show off, and Wodehouse would be my vehicle. I thought Bertie Wooster fitted me quite well because he was such a goof. When I first started doing it, I thought I would play Jeeves and Bertie as being two sides of the same coin. But this was madness on my part because I was much too young to play Jeeves.

"It's only in the last year of the show I feel that I've gotten it right."

Fortunately, audiences, critics and producers in last 10 years were not as hard on Duke as he is on himself.

Duke previewed the piece as a lunchtime show over a London pub, paying for the expenses--1,000 pounds--with all the money he had. Hardly anyone came. But the story had a happy ending when he presented the show in 1978 for Andrew Lloyd Webber at the Sydmonton Art Festival and Lloyd Webber, a man who knows a hit when he sees one, showed his approval by producing him in London in 1980. There, Duke received the Society of West End Theatre Award for Most Promising New Actor of 1980 and ran for five months.

Duke then played Off Broadway in 1983 at the Manhattan Theatre Club for three months, where he picked up a Drama Desk nomination for outstanding solo show. He has traveled throughout the United States, Canada and Australia and performed the show privately for the Queen Mother, reportedly a Wodehouse fan.

Another great fan was Wodehouse's widow. Lady Ethel Wodehouse, who lived in Southhampton, Long Island, left Duke $10,000 in her will for his show, along with the clock on her husband's desk and her husband's black bow tie, which Duke wears at the top of Act II.

She also left him memories of a person he describes as "a great" as well as eccentric woman, who seemed to walk right out of the pages of one of her husband's novels.

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