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She's Salome, Queen of L.A.'s Smaller Stages

Actress Salome Jens values the quality of characters more than the size of the theater.

February 22, 1998|Daryl H. Miller | Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based theater writer

Salome Jens hands over a framed Esquire magazine piece that heralds her as "the reigning queen of Manhattan's booming off-Broadway theater movement."

In the accompanying photo, she wears a teddy outfitted with a swishing horse tail. Her stockinged legs go on forever and her long blond hair swirls around her face. She is a blur of pure eros.

This persona--which she adopted for the 1960 American premiere of Jean Genet's "The Balcony," to play a prostitute who, symbolically, becomes a horse--set eyes popping and tongues lolling.

Nearly 40 years later, Jens is still coltishly beautiful, and she is still a queen of the theater, only now of Los Angeles' small stages. Rarely does a year pass without her making an appearance, contributing such standouts of local theater lore as her one-woman show about poet Anne Sexton, her wordless performance as a woman who calmly goes about her evening routine before committing suicide in "Request Concert" and the needy mother in "The Pelican."

"I was never an ingenue," she says wryly. "I've always been fortunate to be somebody who could never be pigeonholed. I was able to do a lot of different things. And, physically, I'm--what can I say?--suited to the theater because of the instrument," she says, indicating her 5-foot, 9-inch frame. "It's a big instrument."

Now the 62-year-old actress is preparing for the Friday opening of "Play Strindberg (without tears . . .)" at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center in West Hollywood. The play--which veers from tragedy to comedy and back again--is Friedrich Durrenmatt's 1969 adaptation of August Strindberg's "The Dance of Death." Jens plays an embittered wife intent on making her husband pay for all the ways in which her life has failed to meet expectations.

Jens tries to restrict this sort of drama to the stage.

She has played on Broadway (with Kim Stanley in "A Far Country" and Jason Robards in "The Disenchanted") and made memorable appearances in films (including the title character, a faith healer, in Paul Wendkos' Southern gothic tale "Angel Baby," and Rock Hudson's love interest in John Frankenheimer's eerie tale of people yearning for other lives, "Seconds") and television shows (sexy Mae Olinski in "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman"), but she has never reached the front ranks of American actresses.

She does not take this as a cue for wailing and gnashing of teeth, however. "I love my life," she says. "When you choose a creative life, you never grow old. It's forever young and forever growing."

This spirit tends to leave a lasting impression on those who've worked with her or studied in her popular acting classes.

"She was bigger than life for most of us," says Kyle Secor, a star of NBC's "Homicide," who studied with Jens in the early '80s, when he was just getting started in the biz. "For me, she represented what the theater was all about. She had such grace and bearing; she was like poetry to me."

Director Martin Magner, who asked Jens to perform in "Play Strindberg," says: "She has great passion and a wonderful sense of humor--and she moves like an angel. It's a pure joy to work with her because she is so sensitive that you have only to start a sentence, and she already has the ending."

It's morning--the calm before the storm of a busy day. Jens sits at the dining table in her Silver Lake home.

"What excites me about being an actor is that it's really a journey to myself," she says, her deep, velvety voice the siren's call of a Lauren Bacall or a Barbara Stanwyck. "What I'm really discovering is: Who am I, in relationship to you and the universe? And the more I know about that, the more I can bring to my characters. The more revealing I am about who I am, the more universal it becomes."

Jens says she loves working on Los Angeles' small stages, even if it means--as it usually does--that she's earning next to nothing. "When you get a wonderful play to do, no matter where it is, you go and you do it," she says.

Besides, those who've worked in the small theaters have discovered a sense of freedom rarely enjoyed in the larger, more bottom-line-driven ones, she says. "[French playwright Eugene] Ionesco, on his last trip here, said, 'All the French actors want to come to [L.A.] to act.' And I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Because it's so nonchalant. Accidents can happen.' "

She has performed in larger theaters as well, including the Mark Taper Forum ("Crystal & Fox," "Hamlet"), the old Huntington Hartford ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") and the Los Angeles Theatre Center ("Day of Hope," with Secor).

On television, she narrated PBS' "The Great War" miniseries about World War I, and she has guest-starred as Billy's mother on "Melrose Place" and as the head of all the dominions on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."

And then there's her teaching, which she conducts privately and as a visiting professor in UCLA's theater department. "It's wonderful to be around all of those passionate dreams," she says.

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