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She charms like the devil

Julie White survives car and marriage crashes, sense of humor intact, to star in 'The Little Dog Laughed.'

November 16, 2008|Patrick Pacheco | Pacheco is a freelance writer.

NEW YORK — Julie White isn't exaggerating when she describes as a "huge roller-coaster ride" the interlude between her final performance of Douglas Carter Beane's "The Little Dog Laughed" on Broadway and her reprise as the Hollywood agent from hell in the comedy's West Coast premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

In quick succession in spring 2007, White closed the show after a disappointingly short run, coped with what she calls "a runaway husband" and bounced back by winning a Tony Award for leading actress in a play in a tough category that included Angela Lansbury, Vanessa Redgrave, Swoosie Kurtz and Eve Best. Then in September, a limo that was ferrying her to the Alamogordo, N.M., set of "Transformers" -- for her role as Shia LaBeouf's querulous, scene-stealing mother -- veered out of control and flipped over several times. She emerged shaken but unhurt.

"The medics put me on that board, and that was the worst for me," the 47-year-old actress animatedly recalls with a clipped tone that one critic described as "an Uzi in a velvet muffler." "Lord, if that's the first step in waterboarding, they'll never have to get to the water part because I'll tell them everything they want to know. I haaaaaate being trapped."

In that way, at least, White is like Diane, the unfettered and Faustian manipulator in "Little Dog," who is a sister of sorts to Ari Gold, the scheming agent in HBO's "Entourage." Diane has a much better wardrobe and a finer sense of irony, which she wickedly exploits as she brings the audience into her confidence to tell them a Hollywood fable about her client, one Mitchell Green. He's a handsome, closeted movie star whose meteoric career could be in jeopardy when, as she puts it, his "slight recurring case of homosexuality" threatens to become more than that when he falls in love with a male hustler. Seeing her first-class meal ticket going up in smoke, Diane springs into action.

The creators of "Little Dog" had little faith at first that White could pull off a character who has been called "Mephistopheles in Manolos." Before "Little Dog" came along, the actress had established a thriving off-Broadway career playing women more victimized than monstrous in plays by Wendy Wasserstein ("The Heidi Chronicles"), Donald Margulies ("Dinner With Friends") and Theresa Rebeck ("Bad Dates," "Spike Heels"). She also demonstrated she could play wacky, as she did for five years in the TV sitcom "Grace Under Fire." Or even meddlesome and maternal, as in the film "Transformers." But a cold villain, as Beane had originally envisioned her?

"I wrote the play for Cynthia Nixon," admits Beane, who says Bebe Neuwirth and others were also approached until, at the eleventh hour, the role was offered to White, who'd been involved previously in a reading of the play. "Julie was a warm, kooky lady holding court, which wasn't really what we wanted. But she grew more peculiar, full-blooded and energetic, and I thought, well, when Satan comes from hell, he's going to be very charming, a total delight because he has to seduce. And that's what Julie does to an audience."

Indeed, when the play premiered off-Broadway at Second Stage in January 2006, before transferring to Broadway, White unanimously seduced the critics. "An irresistible adrenaline rush of a performance," wrote Ben Brantley in the New York Times. ". . . And while you might hate the cultural sins that Diane stands for, you can't help loving the sinner."

When White is asked if Diane is symbolic of any values that could apply to American culture at large, she laughs and says, "I'm sure some very gay graduate student is working on that thesis as we speak, so I'll just leave it to him." But she makes it clear that she thinks of the character as an archetypal blend of Glinda the Good Witch, Tiger Woods and a checkout girl from Pomona who saw the big glittering life beckoning and reinvented herself. Diane has replaced the apron with drop-dead couture fashion and never, ever looked back.

"Diane doesn't think she's shameless, just good," says White. "She has no fear. Life is a chess game, and Diane is always 18 moves ahead because she can see the whole board. The goal is always to win, she's totally focused, like Tiger." And with typical spontaneity, White picks up a recording device on the restaurant table and yells into it: "If Tiger's people read this newspaper, please, please invite me to play in the Tiger Slam. Pleeeeeease! You let Teri Hatcher play, and I can play as good as her!"

The actress is so enamored of the golfing champ that she has a shrine in his honor in her Brooklyn aerie, complete with an artificial putting green. She lives there only with her Pomeranian, Lulu, now that her daughter by a first marriage, Alexandra, is at USC. Alex's father is a Greenwich Village bar owner, also from Texas, who did a mean two-step and made a fabulous Bloody Mary.

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