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Prime time on the stage

TV has been very good to Neil Patrick Harris, but he also savors `the truth' of playing to a crowd.

April 16, 2006|Barbara Isenberg | Special to The Times

NEIL Patrick Harris is late. He heads apologetically into the room set aside for an interview, extricating himself from the huge backpack that's left him huffing and his Motley Crue T-shirt sweaty. Good thing there's some Red Bull energy drink on the table in front of him.

Red Bulls are a favored drink of Barney Stinson, the sex-crazed, conscience-free jokester that Harris inhabits on CBS' hit sitcom "How I Met Your Mother." The onetime child star of "Doogie Howser, M.D." has TV stardom again as fans mouth such Barneyisms as "steak sauce" (A-1) and "suit up" (wear a suit), write mash notes to Barney's e-mail address and devour his weekly blog at CBS.com.

But this time the interview isn't about the cut of Barney's designer suits, his laser tag abilities or even his bad advice to friends. "How I Met Your Mother" is on hiatus, but Harris isn't. He'll soon be on stage in Los Angeles.

Harris plays the demanding role of Chris Keller in a revival of Arthur Miller's first hit, "All My Sons," opening Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse. Set in what Miller called a "placid American backyard," the prize-winning 1947 drama examines the devastating consequences of wartime decisions on the Keller family and its neighbors.

Harris had planned to "hang out and regroup," but the opportunity was just too alluring. Alternately idealistic and disillusioned, sober World War II veteran Chris Keller is what Harris calls a polar opposite of fun-loving Barney. "Barney is super-caffeinated, and I think Chris eats a lot of green vegetables. The sitcom is short spurts of broad comedy for me, and this is creating not only a character but a person."

The play's director, Randall Arney, says the actor's recent stage work in such shows as "Assassins" on Broadway and "The Paris Letter" at Culver City's Kirk Douglas Theatre "went hand in hand with my very specific idea for Chris."

Whether talking about Barney, Chris or practically anything else, the 32-year-old actor is both earnest and engaging, traits Arney calls imperative in this role. "Chris carries a lot of Miller's moralizing, and as a result you require an actor who is likable and charismatic yet possessing the power to handle the explosiveness of the family drama. This is a guy who has had some horrific war experiences, and the actor has to be able to reach the darker tones in the play."

Experience helps. Harris has been performing either onstage or on-screen pretty much nonstop since his fourth-grade debut as Toto in a school production of "The Wizard of Oz." New Mexico-born and raised, he comes from a musical family: Both of his lawyer parents played musical instruments, sang in the church choir and, says Harris, encouraged self-expression as well as music.

The actor had his first major career break even before starting high school. Sent to a drama camp run by New Mexico State University's theater arts department, he immediately impressed then-department head Mark Medoff. Playwright Medoff ("Children of a Lesser God") knew they were casting his screenplay for "Clara's Heart," and called producer Martin Elfand after the camp's very first warmup exercise.

Medoff was encouraged to tape a scene with Harris, he says, that he later brought to the film's director, Robert Mulligan. "When I put on Neil's tape, he watched 10 seconds or so, and said, 'That's your kid,' " Medoff recalls. "He was a natural performer, and I'm not surprised he's continued to grow."

Harris went on to receive a Golden Globe nomination at 12 for his portrayal of the "Clara's Heart" teenager, playing opposite Whoopi Goldberg. But his greatest fame came a few years later when he was cast as Doogie Howser, M.D., the role that made him a television star.

Harris received another Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Howser, a super-smart 16-year-old doctor. At the show's start, says Harris, creator Steven Bochco took the teenager and his parents to lunch "and said this is going to be a big deal. You ride this wave and it will be a pretty exciting ride. But that wave will inevitably crash on the sand. That doesn't mean it's all done -- there will be many waves to come -- but you may have to sit and wait. I think it is a pretty apt metaphor for the business."

Harris didn't have much of a wait for the theatrical wave. Within months of "Howser's" ending its fourth season in 1993, Harris was cast as the lead in James Lapine's morality comedy, "Luck, Pluck & Virtue" at the La Jolla Playhouse. "I remember thinking he was extraordinarily talented," Lapine says today, "and he's done some amazing stuff since."

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