New York — Kate BURTON may be starring as rich, glamorous Constance Middleton in a revival of "The Constant Wife" -- the sort of drawing-room comedy with a butler who can bring the car around. But offstage she's an Upper West Side mom, struggling with such mundane tasks as alternate-side-of-the-street parking.
In fact, she was moving the family station wagon in that peculiar New York City ritual on the day she was to open on Broadway in the 1926 Somerset Maugham play when a back spasm suddenly crippled her. At that moment, her husband, Michael Ritchie, artistic director of the Center Theatre Group who'd flown in from Los Angeles for the occasion, reached Burton by cellphone.
"Oh, I'm fine," the actress told him cheerily. "My back just went out, I can't get out of the car, and the opening's in a couple of hours. But other than that everything is just great."
With a little patience and a dose of pain reliever mixed with Welsh fortitude and opening-night adrenaline, Burton got through the premiere and party. The next day, most reviewers hailed both the Roundabout production and Burton's turn as the wry aristocratic heroine who knows exactly what to do when she discovers that her doctor husband is having an affair with her best friend.
The recent triumph comes at a turning point in the life and career of the 47-year-old actress. Three years after back-to-back Tony-nominated roles in "Hedda Gabler" and "The Elephant Man," Burton's performance in "Constant Wife" cements her position on the small list of New York dramatic stars -- a roster that includes Cherry Jones, Mary-Louise Parker and Laura Linney -- just as she's in the process of moving to L.A. to join Ritchie with the couple's children, Morgan, 17, and Charlotte, 7.
The transfer to the Los Feliz area will be complete in fall 2006 after their son graduates from high school.
"My 'little midlife adventure,' as a friend of mine calls it," says Burton of becoming an Angeleno, as she enjoys breakfast at a popular restaurant near her apartment. She's dressed casually in tan slacks and white blouse, hoop earrings framing a ruddy, unlined face that is more country girl than urban sophisticate.
When her husband informed her that he had been appointed CTG's artistic director, Burton recalls, she told him, "You're going to make me move to L.A. at the age of 49?!" Theater there, she noted, is a second cousin to film. And though she may be a stage star, she is a character actress in TV and movies, with modest roles in HBO's "Empire Falls," a recurrent role in ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and a cameo as a hallucination in the new Ewan McGregor film, "Stay."
She adds with a laugh, "But then I thought, 'This is the best time to move to Los Angeles, my expectations are so low!' "
One gathers that those low expectations are both a personality trait and protective ruse that has kept the actress in good stead since she switched her ambition to be a career diplomat (she earned a degree in Russian studies at Brown University) to pursue acting at the Yale School of Drama in the shadow of her famous actor father, Richard Burton. "I knew if I was mediocre, I would just get out," she recalls. "I always had escape routes for myself."
Instead, her career gained steam at such a low boil that when her "breakthrough" came, at 44, with the challenging title role in Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler," the critical consensus was along the lines of "Who knew?"
Burton has long been underrated, says "Constant Wife" director Mark Brokaw, because "vanity plays no part in her makeup; she doesn't bring attention to herself." That might seem problematic for a role like that of Constance, a woman who has "the confidence of having all the spotlight on her," as Brokaw describes her. After all, the part had been assayed in the past by such luminous stage legends as Katharine Cornell, Ethel Barrymore and Ingrid Bergman. In the sole dissenting review, Charles Isherwood of the New York Times bemoaned Burton's lack of that old-fashioned glamour while giving her high marks in handling the craft, wit and style of a very exacting play that has been described as "Oscar Wilde lite." The director concedes that it was late in rehearsals before Burton was able to capture Constance's special allure. But, he adds, "Kate plays the glamour and charisma magnificently because she understands it so well. She knows what it's like to be in that world. But with Kate, it's all about the work, it's not about the flashbulbs going off, and that's why it's such a pleasure to collaborate with her."
Burton admits she's always had a problem making "grand entrances" on stage -- which she has been called upon to do in "Hedda" and "Constant Wife." Although the audience applause on her entrance into the latter makes sense -- given the buildup it is given by the other characters -- it also makes her feel somewhat "idiotic" in the deeper recesses.