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Goodbye, Dr. Carter; hello, Dali

By playing the surrealist in the comedy `Lobster Alice' at his home stage, Noah Wyle picks up his post-`ER' career.

July 23, 2006|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

COUNT four red plastic lobsters -- three on the floor, one on a table. Human beings sharing space with the scattered sea creatures speak of giant eyeballs, jellyfish and squirrels. Also curious: on one wall, there is a clock that runs counterclockwise. The "11" is where the "1" should be; 2 is 10 and 10 is 2. The face of the clock features the White Rabbit from "Alice in Wonderland."

"The mechanism is actually running backward. If you look at the clock in a mirror, it is telling time the right way," says Daniel Henning, artistic director of the Blank Theatre Company. "The way we look at things is just a little twisted." The clock will not be part of the set during the show, but will be hung backstage to keep the actors in an off-kilter frame of mind.

Given the quirks of the setting, it seems no more out of place than anything else to see actor Noah Wyle, best known for his longtime role as Dr. John Carter on NBC's "ER," cavorting barefoot, throwing prima-donna fits in a heavy Spanish accent and prodding fellow actor Nicholas Brendon with his gold-handled cane.

The actor most associated with the gritty realism of the emergency room is rehearsing a role that seems exactly the opposite: flamboyant artist Salvador Dali in Kira Obolensky's surreal comedy play "Lobster Alice." The Blank Theatre production opens Saturday at the 2nd Stage Theatre in Hollywood.

Wyle has held the title of artistic producer of the company for nine years -- a catchall title that has mainly involved fundraising and publicity, but also has called for partnering with Henning on some artistic choices, including the selection of "Lobster Alice." He moved into a leadership role in 1997 by donating the money for Henning to acquire the 2nd Stage Theatre business, and secured a $160,000 donation in 1998 from Novartis, the company that produces Maalox, used to upgrade the lighting system, seats and such.

Wyle first appeared with the Blank Theatre in 1991 -- pre-"ER" -- in David Mamet's "Sexual Perversity in Chicago." "That was a terrible production, but it gave me a home base from which to operate," he says, with affection.

"It's a funny little story," Henning says of his first contact with the actor. Wyle's name, he says, had been submitted for consideration for one of the roles, but the Blank held auditions and Wyle didn't come in. "We were seeing some great people -- Matthew Perry being one of them -- but we didn't find what we were looking for."

But Wyle, he continues, "had met our director at some party months before that and had written his number down on a napkin. And he went into some old jacket in the back of his closet and found this napkin. He walked in, and at 19 years old I knew, I knew he was going to be a star. The fact that he was 10 years too young to play this role made absolutely no difference to me."

Although his TV-doctor rounds precluded much performing, Wyle continued to work with the Blank, taking on wide-ranging roles in the company's workshop series and becoming involved in the theater's Young Playwright's program, which nurtures plays by writers 19 and younger. In fact, since "Sexual Perversity," the only Blank production in which Wyle has appeared was 2000's "The Why," which originated in the Young Playwright's Program and made it to the main stage.

In recent years, Wyle has preferred to stay mostly behind the scenes. But last year, he left "ER" after 11 seasons, the last remaining member of the original cast, which included George Clooney, Anthony Edwards, Julianna Margulies and Eriq La Salle. And now -- older, wiser and a good deal richer -- he is returning to his roots, so to speak.

Wyle's "ER" fame perhaps could have opened doors to Broadway or the country's more celebrated regional theaters -- or, locally, to the Ahmanson, the Mark Taper Forum or the Geffen Playhouse -- instead of leading back to a 53-seat venue in Hollywood, earning -- in this case -- $7 per show .

But Wyle says: "There's something about sticking with the horse that got me here. It just seemed natural that after the 'ER' chapter of my life was closed, I would go back to my touchstone, back to the gym, and kind of build up that foundation all over again.

"Plus, I love our theater, I love our space, the intimacy. If a production is good, it's something that just these few people get to enjoy. And if it's bad -- well, you're only falling on your face in front of 53 people."

There are also, he acknowledges, practical reasons for going back on the boards at this time -- both for the company and for himself.

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