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THEATER

She's a Puzzlement

Tony winner Donna Murphy can play it cold or hot, ugly or stunning. See if you recognize her the next time around.

August 11, 1996|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

NEW YORK — Just before actress Donna Murphy was to meet with Steven Bochco early last year, when he was considering her for a role in "Murder One," director Charles Haid took her aside.

"The producers want you, I want you, but there is this concern about you," he told her. "You have this quality. . . ."

Murphy replied, "Oh, and what is that?"

"You know," Haid said. "This kind of stick-up-your-butt, don't-mess-with-me attitude. We just want to see what's underneath that, OK?"

In an interview in her dressing room at the Neil Simon Theatre, Murphy laughs as she recalls the story, which was later corroborated by Haid.

Murphy won the role of Francesca Cross, the mysterious socialite she occasionally plays on the television series, and some of those same imperious qualities are now winning praise for her in the role of Anna in the hit Broadway revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic "The King and I," opposite Lou Diamond Phillips.

Murphy's surprise win at the Tonys last June showed the actress in action. Looking dazzlingly elegant in a skin-tight beaded gown, the statuesque brunet clutched the award that everyone had expected to go to Julie Andrews, and saluted the balcony as the audience roared its approval. This was Murphy's second best-actress Tony--she won two years before for creating the role of the ugly and embittered recluse in Stephen Sondheim's "Passion." But perhaps because this time she had won under such dramatic circumstances, or perhaps because her current role is such a beloved character, this year's triumph lifted the actress to the first rank of Broadway stars. It's a place that almost anyone who's worked with her agrees is her due.

"When Donna first met with me on 'Murder One,' " recalls Haid, "I saw this woman in a beautiful, form-fitting white linen suit with black hair and piercing eyes who left me spellbound. I had been aware of her as someone who'd played weird character parts in theater but I wasn't ready for the woman who entered the room. I would've sold my furniture for her!"

"Donna's matured and I think 'King and I' is a big leap forward for her," says James Lapine, who directed her in "Passion," as well as in his own Jungian drama, "Twelve Dreams," at Lincoln Center. "She has a dark, cool side and she's very intense, so it's nice to see her succeed in doing the kind of part that you wouldn't think of her doing."

So what is underneath that cool and sophisticated veneer? What emerges through a number of interviews with associates as well as with Murphy herself is the picture of a complicated, ambitious and insecure artist, a consummate professional who is as unsparing with herself as she is with others.

Regally perched on the edge of a couch in an elegant dressing room filled with theater and family memorabilia--not to mention Anna's gigantic hoop skirts--Murphy is disarmingly honest, as likely to admit her impatience with mediocrity as she is to having a reputation for being difficult. Wearing little makeup, Murphy's casual mop of hair is swept back and her lithe frame sheathed in black. Yet she is a lady who can cuss like a truck driver. Think Audrey Hepburn crossed with Susan Hayward.

"Oh yeah, yeah, I've heard that 'ice princess' thing before," she says. "And it always surprises me. I guess when it comes to auditions or meetings, I come in very focused. But when the feedback is about showing more vulnerability, I wonder, 'Don't they see that?' Maybe it's what I feel I have to do not to be scared [expletive]. If you consider yourself capable of playing a lot of different types of people, you better be selective about what you're going to show them when you walk in the door."

In fact, few actors could navigate the range of characters she has in both drama and musicals. Just in the last few years she's moved from the hideous Fosca of "Passion" to the big-hearted whore in Michael John LaChiusa's "Hello, Again" to the frivolous and vain, funny woman of "Twelve Dreams" to the brusque and feisty Welsh schoolteacher in "The King and I."

Her transformations are so complete that she has gone unrecognized even by those who know her. Director William Friedkin, who cast her in a small role in the movie "Jade" on the basis of a screen test, realized only later that she was the same actress he'd seen in "Passion." At the workshop of the Sondheim musical, composer Mary Rodgers failed to recognize Murphy, who had been in a revue of her songs just the year before.

"I enjoy exploring different parts of me through the roles," says the actress. "I'm interested in reinvestigating, reinventing, stretching myself. Otherwise I'd be bored.'

Those explorations come at a hefty price, given Murphy's standards. Her comfort in the role of Anna was hard won. In fact, in the heat of final rehearsals for the show, she almost quit.

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