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Learning to mistrust

For 'Intrigue With Faye,' Julianna Margulies and Benjamin Bratt explore a relationship rife with intimacy issues.

June 01, 2003|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — "HAVE you ever proposed to a woman, and she said, 'Let me think about it'?" Jim Simpson is asking Benjamin Bratt.

"No," the actor says, drawing a laugh from Julianna Margulies, who is sitting next to Bratt.

"Of course, you wouldn't have," she says, appraising her dark-haired companion with a look that says: "What woman in her right mind would turn you down?"

It's the second week of rehearsals for "Intrigue With Faye," and the two actors are hunkered at a table, going over scenes with director Simpson as playwright Kate Robin looks on. The new domestic drama opens June 11 for a limited engagement at the Acorn Theatre, the temporary off-Broadway home of the adventurous MCC Theater.

For now, they're in Studio 7B of the Duke Studio rehearsal rooms in midtown Manhattan, adrift in Styrofoam coffee cups and No. 2 pencils, which the four occasionally wield to make notes on their scripts.

Simpson's question is germane to the scene they've just finished reading, revealing a crucial aspect in the troubled relationship between Kean, a documentary filmmaker, and Lissa, a psychotherapist. Kean is challenging Lissa's level of commitment to him after nearly five years: "Like if I asked you to marry me and told you I was ready to really commit to you, and I clearly meant it, how would you feel? Honestly." To which Lissa replies, "Um ... nauseous?"

While Bratt may not appear to be a candidate for such a reaction, he seems comfortable in Kean's skin, a mixture of vulnerability and bravado. He plays a man who is less successful as a filmmaker than as someone who knows he's catnip to women.

When Simpson, a calm, reassuring presence with his glasses down on his nose, suggests that Bratt's reaction to Lissa's "nausea" is a "little too pat," the actor makes a note in his script.

"Right, it's a discovery; it's not leading her on, not rubbing her nose in it," he says.

The chemistry between Bratt and Margulies is relaxed as they banter and joke through the rehearsal.

The Emmy-winning actress ("ER") has made periodic forays onto the stage, most recently in 2001 in Jon Robin Baitz's "Ten Unknowns." Bratt has had less experience on the boards of late. Although he is an alumnus of the master's program at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and appeared early in his career at the Los Angeles Theatre Center and Theatre Geo, "Intrigue With Faye" marks Bratt's New York stage debut as well as his first return to theater since he appeared in Shakespeare Festival/LA's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" a decade ago.

"Julianna's this tightly wound, very smart woman and you need someone very powerful to match her," Simpson says later. "Benjamin can do that and be loose as a goose and quite funny as well. Sexual chemistry is something that you either get lucky with or you don't, and we've gotten very lucky with these two."

Let's go to the tape

Chemistry between the stars will be essential if the actors are to pull off a compelling portrait of a once-hot relationship in crisis -- particularly as they will be competing for the attention of the audience with a third "character" on stage with them: the large monitor located on a console in the studio. Confronted with Kean's womanizing and Lissa's ambivalence, the couple decides to enter a contract to be totally honest with each other for 40 days -- a trust they enforce by videotaping each other's every move. Intermittently throughout the play, other characters emerge on video to throw curves into their experiment in intimacy, including Lissa's colleague Frank (Craig Bierko), on whom she has a crush, and two of Kean's conquests, Tina (Jenna Lamia) and Faye (Gretchen Mol), a television producer. Michael Gaston, Swoosie Kurtz and Tom Noonan also make video cameos.

"It's not just a cute idea, but very much what the play is about," Simpson says of the segments. "I'm very aware that when you put a video image on the stage, all eyes will go to that. But it's a testament to Kate's writing that, I think, the play and the actors will more than hold their own."

Robin, 36, a slight, intense woman who is a writer-producer on the HBO series "Six Feet Under," began "Intrigue With Faye" while taking a graduate playwriting course at New York University 10 years ago. The play had been precipitated by what Robin calls a "very dysfunctional relationship with major trust problems" -- one that had aroused within her "the desire to control," to have constant access to the private life of her partner. But when plans for an earlier production in New York fell through, she shelved the play and didn't look at it again until four years ago.

"There had been another breach of trust in a long-term relationship I was then having, one that had appeared very healthy," she recalls in a phone interview. "I think my unconscious was telling me something."

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