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Where Ibsen left off

Jeff Whitty applies the same irreverent tone he contributed to 'Avenue Q' to his new play, 'The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler.'

January 04, 2006|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

"Could I try this on?" asks Jeff Whitty, referring to a crisp, crimson Little Orphan Annie outfit perched on a dressmaker's dummy in the South Coast Repertory costume shop.

Or how about the gargantuan petticoat a few feet away, destined for a Mammy character like the one in "Gone With the Wind"? Or those Victorian woman's outfits, awaiting completion before they're donned by the title character in Whitty's new play, "The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler," premiering at South Coast on Jan. 13?

The fact that Whitty is a 34-year-old man, too tall for Annie's frock and too slim for Mammy's ruffles, doesn't seem to faze him.

In his play, he has already attempted to enter the souls of these fictional characters and a host of others. Plus, he's best known for achieving the same kind of transformative alchemy in the book of the 2004 Tony-winning musical "Avenue Q," some of whose characters are monsters and most of whom are played by puppets as well as actors.

Getting into other people's heads seems to be a priority with Whitty even outside the theater. In his upstate New York country house, he has a collection of wigs that he offers to let his guests wear.

"Give me the straightest guy," he boasts, "and he'll be in a beehive by midnight."

His latest opus opens with the climactic scene of Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler," in which the bored 19th century Norwegian wife shoots herself. Whitty became obsessed by the play, he says, when he portrayed Hedda's conventional husband, Tesman, in a student production at New York University's graduate school of theater.

"I was by no means a brilliant Tesman," he recalls. He would prefer to play the title role, which he says has been botched in nearly every production he has seen, primarily because actresses give away Hedda's serpentine side too soon.

For the new play, he decided to give Hedda -- among other famous dramatic creations -- a second chance. After committing suicide, Whitty's Hedda wakes up "in this parallel universe where fictional characters exist as long as they're in people's memories," he says. "When they're completely forgotten, they die."

With the appearance of Mammy, "the audience realizes we're not in Norway anymore," the playwright says, although he adds that his script never mentions "Gone With the Wind," just in case the rights holders "are sue-happy."

Medea also shows up and tells Hedda and Mammy about "the furnace," a mysterious "font of all creativity, pouring out fictional characters" -- most of whom die almost immediately. Hedda and Mammy decide to seek the furnace, determined to rewrite their own stories.

Fearful of giving away too many plot points, Whitty doesn't want to discuss what happens next. But in general terms, he expresses skepticism about real-life individuals' ability to rewrite themselves. "I think you have your fundamental nature," he says. "You're an addict to your own personality on a certain level."

Whitty's personality was forged in the town of Coos Bay on the Oregon coast, where he grew up the fifth of six siblings and became ensnared by the stage in adolescence as part of a local troupe called Playwrights Conservatory American Theatre.

He studied and performed with the group from age 11 to 18. A former director of the now defunct company, Kitsann Means, remembers that in this particular make-believe world, Whitty "was like Peter Pan and the rest were like the Lost Boys and Girls."

In addition to the regular productions he was in, he wrote his own plays for stuffed animals, says Means, who recently rediscovered a script Whitty wrote when he was 14 called "The Life and Times of Baby Eeyore."

Whitty "would always tweak the characters," she says. "He has an uncanny way of finding the humor in darkness."

Although he hadn't studied dance, young Jeff tackled it to portray the title role in "Snoopy!" (experience that might have come in handy when he later worked as a go-go dancer in New York).

When a misunderstanding over whether he was available to play the Beast in "Beauty and the Beast" led to his not being cast, he worked the lights instead.

Whitty credits the company for its tough love: "I was so pleased with myself, but they knocked me into shape."

After earning a bachelor's in English at the University of Oregon, he tackled New York in 1993, much like the characters in "Avenue Q" who don't have a clue about what to do with their English degrees.

"I thought people would dress cool and hang out in coffee shops," he says. "I got there in the heat of July, and the smell was terrible."

He rented a tiny apartment on 14th Street in Manhattan, which he still has, and found a job at a famous theater hangout, Joe Allen's restaurant. Soon he applied for the NYU graduate theater program as an actor. But while at NYU, he realized he preferred writing to acting. His first play, "Suicide Weather," was produced there.

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