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He's playing another scoundrel in chief

October 09, 2007|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

You can trust Gregory Itzin. Seriously.

How can you not put your faith in a performer who lists his wife, their two kids and his "faithful dog Bogey" in his artist bio?

But if you do feel a little uncomfortable around him, you wouldn't be to blame. Itzin knows he has this thing about him, a kind of darkness that helps him portray people who are more than a little suspect. It's a trait he's tapped through much of his decades-long acting career, including in his latest role in "Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself)" at South Coast Repertory.

"I am those people, and they are me," he declares with a mischievous laugh, using a colorful term for those characters with a term not suitable for a family newspaper. "I seem to always get those parts."

Itzin's extensive resume of white-collar lowlifes was supercharged the last three seasons with his stint as President Charles Logan, one of the most deliciously evil villains in recent TV memory, on Fox's "24."

He played the part with a Nixon-like demeanor and penetrating blue eyes that conveyed both sadness and menace -- often simultaneously -- as Logan continually put counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and the United States in harm's way. For his efforts, he received an Emmy nomination for supporting actor in a drama series.

Now Itzin is taking on another larger-than-life shady role in "Shipwrecked!" The world premiere play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies puts Itzin's knack for playing men who believe they're good, even when they're bad, at center stage.

"Shipwrecked" revolves around the true story of De Rougemont, a Victorian-era figure who gained fame with his published serialized accounts of his fantastic adventures in the South Pacific -- riding giant sea turtles, befriending aborigines, encountering a fearsome octopus, becoming a near-god among natives.

But his celebrity came crashing down when the stories were exposed as fabrications. De Rougemont struggled to maintain his dignity by telling his story his way, even with his credibility shattered.

For Itzin, De Rougemont fits in perfectly with his rogues' gallery of men who don't think they're doing anything wrong.

"I love Louis a lot," he says. "He's not morally corrupt; he's not hurting anybody. He's telling this story because it's the only way he can achieve validation for his life. And everyone has their story to tell. That's how we get through life."

It's the bold, broad way Itzin tells the story that sparks the production. The play is sparsely staged but highly theatrical, with Itzin performing a near-monologue, addressing the audience directly as he stalks the surroundings with a stormy vaudevillian-like bravado.

Melody Butiu and Michael Daniel Cassady assist him, playing several characters, and even animals (Cassady plays De Rougemont's faithful dog).

Itzin "yaks nonstop" for 90 minutes. "It's a workout, to say the least," says Itzin. He bears little resemblance to the heavier, more sinister Logan, running his hand often through wavy, curly hair and a gray-speckled goatee. He wears a jeans jacket adorned with a few small badges and a safety pin looped through one of the buttonholes.

Taking on "Shipwrecked!" required memorizing a voluminous amount of dialogue, "which nearly killed me." The task is made more difficult by the fact that Itzin must establish an instant connection with the audience, which made rehearsals without onlookers more than a little difficult.

"I really have to feed off the audience, and if there's no one on the other side feeding me, it presents a very unique dilemma," he says. "I really have to sell the story, and it's hard to get at it because the reality is shifting. De Rougemont knows where the story is going, but he can't let the audience know. It's that rare bird, where I'm trying to take the feathers off but keep it whole."

Being the center of a piece is quite a change of pace for Itzin, who has been a member of the Matrix Theatre Company for the last eight years, starring in such productions as 2000's "Waiting for Godot" and "The Birthday Party" in 2001. He also won Tony and Drama Desk nominations for his roles in Robert Schenkkan's "The Kentucky Cycle," which he originated at the Mark Taper Forum.

"Shipwrecked!" director Bart De Lorenzo said Itzin was his first choice for De Rougemont: "You need a great actor who can captivate an audience. Gregory is this wonderful combination -- a great Shakespearean actor who can make Donald Margulies' wonderful dialogue sing. But he's also a great noir actor who has all this darkness and mystery. You need both for this play."

Itzin also sees a kindred spirit between his current character and his most famous one.

"I like to explore the reasons why these people are the way they are. I don't think of them as evil. A fan of '24' came to me and said, 'I hated you, but I felt sorry for you.' That was great. I'm always trying to find that fine line."

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