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THEATER : Dukes at Peace in 'Wars' : TV and film roles are bread and butter for the veteran Broadway star, but the theater is where his heart is--no matter how small the stage.

May 14, 1995|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar.

If going from a major Broadway stage to a 99-seat theater in West Hollywood seems like an odd career trajectory, it makes a certain sense to veteran actor David Dukes.

"I'm doing what's possible at the moment and that means (small) theater," he says, over lunch in a restaurant near his afternoon rehearsal. "Because I need to take (film and TV) jobs, I can't commit to a three-month run anywhere, but I can do these plays. That's why I'm here."

The big stage's loss is certainly small theater's gain. Currently performing in "Ad Wars" at the Court Theatre, Dukes is also in rehearsal for another play, "Rage in Tenure," which will open at Theatre Geo June 3.

With 25 years of Broadway roles under his belt--including such shows as "M. Butterfly," "Amadeus" and "Bent," for which he received Tony and Drama Desk nominations--Dukes' most recent turn was as one of the three principals (alongside Amy Irving and Ron Rifkin) in Arthur Miller's 1994 "Broken Glass" on Broadway. He also has a long list of credits in film and TV, including, in recent seasons, "The Mommies" and "Sisters."

But the stage is his sustenance. "Theater is where my career has come from," the affable Dukes says. "Every time I come back and touch it, it changes me. Emotionally, that's where the work comes from for me.

"When I'm away from (the stage) for a long time--or if I stay in film work for too long--(my performance skills) get fuzzy because there's no feedback from an audience," Dukes continues. "I learned to make easy choices (on TV) and now I go back to theater and I recognize that."

And that artistic rejuvenation, more than anything else, is why Dukes continues to return to the medium that he considers his permanent creative home. "This is why I was born, to be able to do repertory, performing one show at night and rehearsing another during the day," he says. "As long as I can stand up and memorize lines, I'll never stop going back to the theater."

In person, Dukes couldn't be more unlike Dick Hurley, the hustling, Maalox-swigging executive in Vince McKewin's "Ad Wars," a comedy about a group of ad agency employees under the gun, so to speak, to come up with a campaign for a bomb.

For starters, Dukes has none of Hurley's antsy ambitiousness. "I never really wanted to be a star," he says. "I never courted it actively. What I wanted was enough notoriety to get considered for the big parts along with good people. And you have to have some notoriety to get there."

Also unlike Hurley, Dukes has an easy laugh, a warm smile and an unassuming manner. "He's the easiest person in the world to work with," says "Ad Wars" director Jenny Sullivan, speaking by phone from New Mexico. "We're lucky to have him.

"Someone like David could come in (to a small theater production) as the person with the resume a mile long, but he (behaves as though) he's just on first base like everyone else," Sullivan continues. "There's a certain lack of ego. David instills confidence in other people."

But Dukes doesn't stint on his own work in the process. Los Angeles Times reviewer F. Kathleen Foley said of his performance in "Ad Wars": "Dukes manages to make even his pointedly amoral character engaging."

Similarly, Newsday's Linda Winer-Bernheimer called his portrayal of the womanizing yet morally vexed doctor in "Broken Glass" "dashing and compassionate."

If Dukes comes by such charm--or even Dick Hurley's venom--naturally, though, it's also the result of decades of on-the-job training.

Dukes, 49, grew up in the San Francisco area and joined the American Conservatory Theatre in 1967, the year it began. He spent three seasons performing in repertory with that company before moving to Los Angeles.

In L.A., though, he found that he "couldn't make a go of it," turning instead to work in some of the best repertory theaters in the country, including the Alley Theatre in Houston, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Pennsylvania.

Then, in 1971, Dukes landed a supporting role in his first Broadway show, "The School for Wives" with Brian Bedford. He spent six months on Broadway and completed a national tour with that show.

One year later, Dukes became a charter member of the New Phoenix Repertory Company in New York. Around this time as well, he began to work steadily in Manhattan. He also did some directing, primarily in Off Off Broadway venues.

In 1974, Dukes returned to L.A. for his first television job, establishing a pattern of seasonal bi-coastal migration that he sustained through much of the 1970s. "I initially started coming out here so I could make money and go back and do theater," says Dukes, who took up full-time residence in L.A. following his 1983 marriage to poet-novelist-professor Carol Muske-Dukes, with whom he now has an 11-year-old daughter named Annie.

"I made the choice to stay in L.A.," Dukes says. "You just can't make enough money in theater and that's really why I chose to be out here."

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