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Honesty From a Crosswise Misfit : More Than 64 Jobs Later, Actress Has Turned Being 'Blown Sideways' Into Success

October 04, 1994|PATRICK PACHECO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Actress Claudia Shear, standing in the middle of her cluttered Brooklyn apartment, whips off her blouse, exposing her zaftig figure to a male photographer and interviewer.

"I can't be bothered with going into the next room to change," she says, slipping into the embroidered blouse she plans to wear following the Los Angeles premiere of her comedy "Blown Sideways Through Life," opening tonight at the Coronet Theatre. Posing, she adds, "Self-consciousness is one of the very few things I tend to be free of."

Indeed, it is a nakedly honest moment, as wild and earthy as much of the personal odyssey the 32-year-old actress sketches in her one-person play, which became last season's runaway Off-Broadway hit. A self-admitted misfit, protected by the "constancy of books and the comfort of food," Shear took her title from H.G. Wells' observation that while some people are born to a specific place and position, others are fated to live "crosswise for the rest of the time."

In the play, the actress dissects her own social dislocation through a look at her resume of more than 64 different jobs: from playing Mrs. Rip Van Winkle in a pageant to waiting tables at a dozen different restaurants, to proofreading legal briefs on a graveyard shift to answering phones in an Eastside Manhattan whorehouse.

"I went through jobs like butter," she recalls in the play. "I went through butter like butter"--at one point putting more than 200 pounds on her small frame.

In an hour of stream-of-consciousness riffs and detailed vignettes, Shear melds a hip, raunchy knowingness with a lucid admiration for what really moves America, from the ribald shortcuts of callgirls to the ammonia smell of swabbing down toilets in a hardware store. The bitter epithets that she flings at bosses account for the fact that she was fired from most of her places of employment. But the aspiring actress spent enough time at some of them to capture the fluorescent-lit poetry of the working girl.

In fact, "Blown Sideways" struck such an immediate visceral nerve when it opened in New York last fall that not only was the show greeted with rave notices and a glut of personal publicity for its star, but ABC News was so impressed with its celebration of the everyday laborer that Peter Jennings named Claudia Shear "Person of the Week." For someone who had been dancing precariously on the edge up to that point, the overnight success was stunning.

"It was a tsunami," she says, entertaining three visitors in her cozykitchen dominated by a poster of the late producer Joseph Papp (a hero to Shear, as are Elvis Costello, Jacques Brel and Buster Keaton). "It was everything you ever wanted, but you feel so overwhelmed, you wish people would go away, just for a while, and then come back."

People kept coming, of course, during the Standing Room Only nine-month New York run. Thus Shear, on the eve of her Los Angeles engagement, finds herself in the ironic position of having achieved relative fame on the wings of a play that exalts the common anonymous experience. After all, as Shear puts it, "Nobody is just a typist, just a dishwasher, just a cook, just a porter. . . . Everyone has at least one story that would stop your heart."

Perhaps because of this, the actress takes pains not to sound self-important. "Look, I know I'm white, I'm educated, I have nice table manners. I know where I fit in. But it's not like, 'I'm cool and you're a working stiff.' I've just been very lucky," she says, acknowledging that she is now living the kind of struggle-then-success stories she loves best. But has success gone to her head? When asked whether Shear is enjoying it, a close friend of hers observes, "Claudia's too neurotic. She's circling Saturn. That's why we love her."

The gale-force energy of "Blown Sideways" is on display as well in her walk-up in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood. Shear manages to do six things at once--talk about her life and career, give a present to her publicist from a recent trip to Paris, worry about the water leak under her sink, offer croissants and French jam, dust crumbs off the lap of an interviewer, keep an eagle eye on what the photographer's doing. It's not surprising to learn later that she once lost her house keys, only later to find them in a book she'd left in her refrigerator.

*

How, then, did such a scatter-brained, albeit intelligent, artist come up with such a focused piece of writing?

Shear gives credit to her friend director Christopher Ashley ("Jeffrey"), who developed the play with her at New York Theatre Workshop over a two-year period. The opportunity to do so came when she approached James C. Nicola, the artistic director of NYTW, for help finding an agent. The director refused, suggesting instead that she write something. "Tell them who you are," he said.

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