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TV? Movies? That's Old Hat

Most of the actors in the young LA Stage & Film company have already made it to Hollywood. What they really want to do is perform onstage.

September 29, 2002|IRENE LACHER

Either the place was a destination for the hungry hordes or a waiting room for heaven. The room Mary McDonnell is sitting in is blizzard-white, and it's lined with countertops covered by various coffee makers. But alas, the coffeepots are empty and the bare countertops aren't any more promising. There's no trace of the elaborate feasts laid out at production breaks by the filmmakers with whom McDonnell is used to working.

More likely, the room really is paradise adjacent, located as it is on the second floor of a simple Methodist church in West Hollywood that sometimes doubles as a meeting place for AA.

Buddy, can you spare a rehearsal space?

Next door to the church kitchen, McDonnell's colleagues in the nascent theater company LA Stage & Film are rehearsing Max Mayer's new play "James and the Handless Maiden" under the direction of McDonnell's husband, actor Randle Mell. Clearly, even though most people in the company work in film and/or television, the scene is nothing like Hollywood, certainly not the salaries, because there are none. If the choice is love or money, well, you do the math.

McDonnell is explaining how the return to her roots on the stage isn't about the cash, not that she would turn it down if it were offered. "I'm no purist," she says with a wry smile. The actress is talking about how she hungered to play a part far more demanding than the ones she's usually offered, that of "a dangerous woman" who has just emerged from a psychiatric institution, committed after stabbing her husband. All this before the curtain even goes up.

At a graceful 50, McDonnell is just getting past that funny age for women--the invisible 40s--when she was too old for "the girl" roles and too young to play older women. And of course, juicy parts for older women are far more common on the stage than in Hollywood's youth culture.

"Part of why I'm getting drawn back in is, I'm starting to get old enough for some of the roles," she says, her perfectly manicured hands sweeping the air as she talks. "On the set of 'ER' last year, Noah Wyle and I were talking, and I said, 'We really should do a reading of "The Glass Menagerie" because I've been waiting to play Amanda, the mother, my whole life, but I wasn't old enough.' And he just started laughing, and he said, 'You know, you are old enough now.' And I said, 'Noooooooooo,' " she recalls and laughs.

McDonnell is in good company, specifically the West Coast spinoff of the accomplished not-for-profit New York Stage & Film. LA Stage's 20-year-old counterpart produces new plays by established playwrights and talented newcomers on Vassar College's bucolic campus in upstate New York and has attracted numerous marquee names such as John Patrick Shanley, Beth Henley, Richard Greenberg, Edie Falco and Christian Slater.

Several of New York Stage's plays have moved on to commercial venues off-Broadway as well as on, such as "Tuesdays With Morrie," which opens in November at the Minetta Lane Theatre. (The company's name refers to its initial mission, which included producing short films, a goal it dropped because movies were consuming the bulk of its resources.)

Shanley, who has had four plays mounted by New York Stage & Film, says he's impressed by the caliber of talent there. "It's a terrific company," he says. "They have a very good assessment of people's gifts, and they're artist-friendly. They get what artists do, so it isn't a battle. And they have very good taste in material. If you're doing a new play, it's always the most fun to be doing it with other writers whose work you respect."

That holds true for the members of LA Stage & Film, half of whom are alumni of the New York company. For them, the essence of their new venture is the company they keep.

Consider McDonnell and Mell, whose connection goes back to 1986, when Shanley recruited them for New York Stage's 1986 production of his play "Savage in Limbo." The couple is close to "Handless Maiden" playwright Mayer, a co-founder and producing director of New York Stage who brought a pink teddy bear to the hospital when their 14-year-old daughter, Olivia, was born. McDonnell is the godmother of producer Terry Urdang's son Parker, and she met Roxanne Hart in a midwives' office before Olivia was born, a day before the arrival of Hart's son, Alexander.

Now Hart is starring in LA Stage's production of Craig Wright's play "Orange Flower Water," which will alternate with McDonnell's play during the company's inaugural run at the Gascon Center Theatre in Culver City through Nov. 3.

"LA Stage & Film has evolved mostly out of a desire for a theatrical community like a lot of these people experience in New York," Mayer says.

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