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'L.A. Law's' Underwood Takes 'Measure' of Choices : Television: The actor stars as Claudio, in a play about ill-fated romance, which is the first offering of this summer's Shakespeare in the Park.

July 30, 1993|GENE SEYMOUR | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — Imagine being 28 years old, eligible, handsome, famous with a future swarming with promise and being given death-haunted lines from Shakespeare to squeeze into your memory banks for part of your summer.

"Yeah, it's a little heavy," Blair Underwood says, shuddering a little (maybe from the air conditioning as much as anything else) as he awaits his lunch in an Upper West Side eatery not far from where he's staying during the summer. "But I think it's the kind of stuff you can relate to at any age. Everybody relates to it differently, but what can you say? Death's always there."

Underwood is playing Claudio in "Measure for Measure," which is playing at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park as the first offering of this summer's Shakespeare in the Park. Claudio is a well-meaning, somewhat impulsive young man sentenced to die because of an illicit romance.

"We're talking about someone who's a pillar of the community and feels a great injustice," Underwood says. "He did nothing wrong. After all, he made love to the woman he loved. And he's gonna die for it. He's livid at the prospect and afraid at the same time. You just imagine yourself in that situation and put yourself there."

True to the freewheeling interpretive tradition of Shakespeare in the Park, this "Measure," which also stars Kevin Kline as the noble Duke Vincentio, Andre Braugher as his not-so-noble deputy Angelo and Lisa Gay Hamilton as Claudio's pure-hearted sister, is set in a Caribbean colony just before the outbreak of World War II.

"One of the reasons we wanted this setting is because on a Caribbean island you can establish a public forum very easily," says director Michael Rudman. "And this play deals with passionate religious and sexual emotions worked out in private, but acted out very much in the open."

Underwood, who soon begins his seventh season as attorney Jonathan Rollins on "L.A. Law," was in New York during the spring for a "Donahue" show featuring the short film he directed, "The Second Coming," when his agent suggested he audition for "Measure."

Rudman heard Underwood's reading with no prior knowledge of the actor's TV fame. "I'd never seen 'L.A. Law,' though my daughter's a film director. She loves the show. But he's quite accomplished, quite good."

Not even performing and rehearsing in a summer infected with swampy, upper-90-degree days and nights can subdue Underwood's delight with his summer job.

"You know, the whole reason for my doing this was to get back to . . . well, the work. You know, to do the work," he says. "It's different from television or film work because every night, you do something different. With film, you do something. You get a take done. And that's it. Once it's in the print, in the can, you don't get a second night to do it right. Out here, every performance is different. That's the excitement of it. Kevin and I were talking about this the other day . . ."

Since Kline's name had come up, what else has Underwood learned from the man many consider one of the nation's foremost Shakespearean actors?

"He said something very interesting to me the second week. Something very helpful. He said actors often come in to do Shakespeare and they say, 'Well, I got this idea and I'm gonna play the role like this or that.' You know, using tricks.

"But Kevin says that really, the trick to playing Shakespeare is to just release yourself to the words. The words are going to play you. If you get into the words, feel their beauty, abandon yourself to them, the rest is easy."

As far as Underwood is concerned, such lessons are part of his ongoing education, which began almost from the time he was born in Tacoma, Wash., the second of four children of a career Army officer. The family moved to Germany, Georgia, Michigan and Washington, D.C., before finally settling in Petersburg, Va.

While in junior high, Underwood took careful note of his older brother Frank's preparation for a role in a high school production of "Guys and Dolls."

"I was fascinated literally by the whole process of learning the lines, knowing the lines, taking it from the rehearsal stage to the actual staging, adding lights and wardrobe. That's what hooked me."

His commitment was fixed by the time he became a high school junior when he began collecting professional credentials in Richmond, Va., dinner theaters. He attended Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University, a spawning ground for, among others, "L.A. Law" co-creator Steven Bochco and "Law" co-stars Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry.

He left college in 1985, his junior year, to try his luck in New York, though he continued taking correspondence courses toward his degree. Things started happening fast. That same year, he collected a bit part on "The Cosby Show" and then appeared in the film, "Krush Groove." The following year, he played what he called "delinquent type" Bobby Blue on "One Life to Live" before leaving for the "Left Coast" to do a short-lived CBS series, "Downtown."

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