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Speeding the plow once again

On hiatus from `The Closer,' actor Jon Tenney eagerly returns to the stage in David Mamet's satirical look at the film business.

February 05, 2007|Laura Hitchcock | Special to The Times

Jon Tenney has had a rough morning, much of it spent being knocked down, kicked around and punched by his good friend as others stand by and watch.

And as if that weren't enough, he's still working on his lines and blocking.

Tenney is just weeks from the opening night of David Mamet's Hollywood satire, "Speed-the-Plow," which opens at the Geffen Playhouse on Wednesday. On this day, he and his friend and costar Greg Germann are working through a fight scene as director Randall Arney looks on.

Adding pressure to the moment, Mamet has dropped in on the rehearsal. He looms nearby, eyes hidden behind dark glasses, ready to tweak lines from his Tony-nominated 1988 play or cut material that sounds dated or rhythmically wrong.

"I was so hungry to do a play," Tenney says later, tucking into a sandwich recommended by vegan Alicia Silverstone, his other costar in the play.

Until his divorce from actress Teri Hatcher in 2003, Tenney divided his time between Broadway and Hollywood. But sharing custody of their now 9-year-old daughter, Emerson, made traveling back and forth unfeasible. Today Tenney lives in Brentwood with film producer and former ballerina Leslie Urdang.

"I used to support my theater habit here in film and television, a business I love, then go to New York to do a play," he says. "I was so happy when this came along."

This role had an added appeal for the actor: "Working with a living playwright!"

In "Speed-the-Plow," Tenney plays Bobby Gould, a newly appointed studio executive torn between his old pal and employee Charlie Fox (Germann), who has brought him a prison movie attached to the hottest male star in the business, and his appealing new temporary secretary Karen (Silverstone), who is plugging a novel about the end of the world. When "Speed-the-Plow" first opened in New York, it starred Joe Mantegna as Gould, Ron Silver as Fox (for which he won the Tony) and Madonna in her Broadway debut.

Theatrical roots

The 45-year-old actor is on hiatus from his role as FBI agent Fritz Howard, Kyra Sedgwick's main squeeze on TNT's "The Closer." He has regularly appeared in dozens of television shows, including "Murphy Brown," "Brooklyn South" and "Kristin." Among his many movies are "You Can Count on Me" and last year's Albert Brooks comedy, "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World."

But Tenney's roots are on the stage. He studied theater at Vassar, where he appeared in "The Heiress" as Morris Townsend, a role he would later play on Broadway with Cherry Jones, a decade after his 1985 Broadway debut in "Biloxi Blues."

The youngest of four children of a nuclear physicist father and a psychiatrist mother, Tenney is one of the few actors who never had to find a day job. While in graduate school at Juilliard, he was drafted for the touring production of Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing." "Mike Nichols got me my Equity card," he says of the "Real Thing" director.

Tenney continued to work off-Broadway in such plays as Jon Robin Baitz's "The Substance of Fire" and John Guare's "Chaucer in Rome" as well as at the Ahmanson and the Old Globe in San Diego.

Tenney returned to Vassar in 1986 to do "Orpheus Descending" with New York Stage and Film, a theatrical group cofounded by Urdang that is based at the college and employs professional actors as well as students in smaller parts. At NYSF, he met two of his more powerful influences, playwright-director John Patrick Shanley and director David Esbjornson.

'Incredible fluidity'

Tenney worked there with Esbjornson and actor Alvin Epstein in the Mitch Albom book-to-stage production of "Tuesdays with Morrie," which opened in 2002 off-Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre. Tenney recalls sitting around the table with playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and Esbjornson, working on the play. "It was so satisfying to be intimately involved in creating a text, talking about what we need, what will work," he says.

Shanley, who directed Tenney in the 1991 Manhattan Theatre Club production of his semiautobiographical play "Beggars in the House of Plenty," saw the actor's potential early. "I knew he'd do well," says Shanley, who won the 2005 Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for "Doubt." "He's such a good actor. He had incredible fluidity. When he put on that sailor's uniform, he not only became a sailor but a sailor in 1956.... It was pitch-perfect."

Taking on the role of Bobby Gould has allowed Tenney to reconnect professionally with his good friend Germann. The two met when they were working on Broadway as understudies in "Biloxi Blues." Today they take vacations with their children.

"Their personal history gives the characters so much more history," says director Arney. "There's a trust and a bond in real life." That, Arney says, adds layers to characters who "think fast, talk fast, feed on each other's energy."

Although the characters have not changed in almost 20 years, Mamet has reset the story in the present. Now, as when he first wrote the play, Mamet's Hollywood characters live in constant fear professionally.

"This business, like a cop or hospital show, is an environment that's inherently dramatic," Tenney says. "I wonder how this production will play in the belly of the beast."

*

`Speed-the-Plow'

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays- Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: March 25

Price: $35 to $69

Contact: (310) 208-5454, (213) 365-3500

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