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From Zoey to Franny

Elisabeth Moss, first daughter on 'The West Wing,' plays a sassy adolescent in a coming-of-age tale at the Geffen.

June 15, 2003|Barbara Isenberg | Special to The Times

Strangers keep stopping Elisabeth Moss on the street.

Perhaps that has something to do with the 20-year-old actress obviously knowing what happens next to her character, Zoey Bartlet, on NBC's "The West Wing."

The kidnapping of the president's daughter at the end of the season inspired a cliff-hanger. But Moss isn't talking. "If I told them," she says, "it would ruin the surprise for them."

Actually, Moss admits, she hasn't yet seen the episode in which, high on Ecstasy, Zoey is snatched from a nightclub. The night it aired last month, she was shooting a movie in New Mexico and now, she explains, all her time is consumed with the play she's rehearsing at the Geffen Playhouse.

Better to talk about the smart, sassy adolescent she plays in Richard Nelson's play "Franny's Way." A coming-of-age story set in Greenwich Village in 1957, the play premiered in March 2002 at New York's Playwrights Horizons and makes its West Coast debut Wednesday at the Geffen. Moss is one of three actors from the original production reprising their roles here.

Moss inhabits 17-year-old Franny, a fledgling writer who changes her name from Francis in honor of J.D. Salinger's fictional heroine. Narrated by a 60-ish Older Franny (played by stage veteran Penny Fuller), the play takes two teens and their grandmother from upstate New York to a Manhattan apartment crowded with not just family but also loss and languor, secrets and yearnings.

"Franny is a young woman who feels she is ready to be independent," explains Nelson, winner of a Tony for his book of the musical "James Joyce's The Dead" "She's grown up enough and just wants to burst out of her somewhat sheltered life in Millbrook, N.Y. In the play, she finds out independence isn't as simple as she thinks."

It's a part she couldn't resist, Moss says during a break. "I don't know how Richard does it, but he knows adolescent girls with such a truth, it's truly astounding. Very often, you have to pretend you're older and try to be mature and sophisticated. It's so much fun to just be full of life and lose your inhibitions. I knew instinctively I had to do it."

So, two weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the Los Angeles-based actress was in New York, auditioning. "I just saw myself in Franny. When I went into the audition, I said to Richard, 'This is me.' Afterward, he said, 'Yeah, you do know this character.' "

Apparently so. Sitting on a rock in Central Park later that same day, too nervous to eat the bagel in her hand, Moss was talking with her mother on her cell phone when another call came in.

Learning she'd gotten the part, she says, "I started jumping up and down on this rock like a complete fool, not even caring if anybody was looking at me. As I'm sure they were.

"It meant so much more than getting a part. I was hyperventilating."

That's how Moss talks. She punctuates many remarks with a giggle, and offstage as much as onstage in rehearsal she seems authentically ingenuous. "She has that woman-child thing going," comments Playwrights Horizons' casting director, James Calleri. "She's very mature but doesn't seem like she's gone out of adolescence yet."

Moss' adolescence, like her childhood, has been largely one of performing. Moss' parents are both in the music industry -- her father, Ron, manages jazz musicians and her mother, Linda, plays blues harmonica -- and she's been acting since she was 6. She had a recurring role on the '90s CBS series "Picket Fences," and at 10 she played the lead in the long-running Los Angeles children's musical "Big Tush, Little Tush." Even then, recalls LeeAn Lantos, co-author of the musical's book, "she was always right on the money and very professional."

The young actress was the voice of a sick possum in the animated feature "Once Upon a Forest" in 1993. She played Baby Louise in CBS' "Gypsy" in 1993 and young Ashley Judd in NBC's "Naomi & Wynonna: Love Can Build a Bridge" in 1995.

But despite that success, her prime focus was ballet until, she says, she played a runaway teen in the 1999 film "The Joyriders," with Martin Landau. "It was the first time I wasn't playing somebody's daughter and had an actual story and life of my own to play," she says. "I realized what acting was and how much fun it can be. I decided you couldn't be a professional ballerina and still make movies and do plays, so I went for acting. And I'm so glad I did."

There have already been a dozen films, including Wayne Wang's "Anywhere But Here," James Mangold's "Girl, Interrupted" and Lawrence Kasdan's "Mumford."

"She's not your classic Hollywood ingenue," observes James Lapine, who directed her in the HBO film "Earthly Possessions." "She's very real. She feels familiar in a good way, like someone you would know or be related to."

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