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INTERVIEW : Voice No. 1,001 : Her TV show is history, but Tracey Ullman has found another offbeat American misfit to play, this time on Broadway

March 03, 1991|HILARY De VRIES | Hilary De Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar. and

NEW YORK — There's, like, a problem with the photographers. There's, like, too many of them. But Tracey Ullman doesn't seem to mind. She sits in her dressing room at the Plymouth Theater and smiles. Smiles for the first one. Then smiles all over again for the second one.

A few shots outside? You know, first show on Broadway, get the marquee in. There's even some tourists waiting for autographs, a few frat boys from Long Island. Hey, get them in the shot. Smile Tracey, the shoot for Vanity Fair took, like, nine hours.

"Christ, does everybody in this country talk like a Valley girl?" asks Ullman back in her dressing room a few minutes later. Splashing some boiling water into a mug of Marks & Spencer tea like a good English girl, Ullman does a devastating imitation of one of the photographers before lapsing back into her Cockney, itself an imitation. "God, I mean they're everywhere."

One might say the same thing about Ullman--a gifted if peripatetic mimic, comedian or actress depending on the current demands on her talents. Check the resume. It's good in two countries. She's done singing and dancing. She did a record album. She did theater. She did television. She did film.

Then Britain's beloved "Our Trace" came to America. Television all over again. Then film again. Last summer she even did Shakespeare. Now she's doing Broadway. A one-woman show, "The Big Love," starring the petite, brown-haired 31-year-old Ullman as Florence Aadland, a blowzy, blond, 45-year-old Texan whose teen-age daughter, Beverly, was Errol Flynn's last nymphet. What is Ullman trying to prove? That the woman of thousand voices is a cat with nine lives?

"I've always been a misfit," says Ullman about her unpigeonholeable career. "I've always had to create my own markets and I've always been at a juncture in my career. I just want to do good work." She pauses. "As opposed to what, bad work? But I can't take the easy option. I just can't." She pauses again. "I don't think you can get more famous than this," she says without a trace of irony in her voice.

Like other iconoclastic comic performers such as Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg, Ullman is finding the transition from singular brillance to regular work something of a challenge. As James Brooks, writer and producer of "The Tracey Ullman Show," described his former star, "Tracey is damn near unique. Who do we relate her talents to? On the show, we kept comparing her to Peter Sellers until we just got sick of it."

Four years ago, it looked like Ullman had hit it on the Fox Network, where she dazzled a small but devoted following with her tour-de-force portrayals of female misfits: Francesca, a precocious 14-year-old whose father was a homosexual; Kay, the repressed English secretary still living with Mum; Carol, the black New York subway rider; Ginny, the fortysomething divorced wife of a Beverly Hills proctologist; Summer Storm, a heavy-metal rocker, among many others.

It was an eerily accurate rogues gallery that earned its rubber-voiced star three Emmy awards but never a mass audience. The show became a victim of its own cult status and rotating time slot. Its ratings, while improved, suffered in comparison to Fox's other break-the-mold shows, "The Simpsons," "Married . . . With Children" and "In Living Color." Last year, Ullman pulled the plug after Fox dawdled over her contract renewal, leaving her twisting in the breeze to the point at which "her dignity was eroded," says Brooks. "They didn't have the enthusiasm that Tracey needed."

Lawrence Kasdan had been one Hollywood director who liked what he saw. He tapped Ullman, who had played a small role with Meryl Streep in the British film "Plenty," to star with Kevin Kline in his 1990 comedy "I Love You to Death." Critics smiled benignly. "She's fine," said Los Angeles Times critic Shelia Benson about Ullman's portrayal of Rosalie, a mousy Tacoma housewife who acquires murderous motives. Buoyed by that foray, Ullman trouped to New York to play opposite Morgan Freeman in "The Taming of the Shrew" in Central Park. Again, critics were pleasantly surprised. "While Ms. Ullman's Kate could use a few more notes," wrote The New York Times' Frank Rich, "her fierce presence and sardonic comic attack usually rivet the attention."

But neither of those projects exhausted Ullman's multiple talents. After the demise of her television show, the actress entertained script offers but few were to her liking. "I'm not a film snob. I like television. But there is something about film that really pisses me off, just a lot of middle-range mush," she says.

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