The day after her graduation from Yale Drama School — 23 years ago this month — Kate Burton went into rehearsal with George C. Scott for her first Broadway show, as simply and as seamlessly as some people transfer subway trains. It wasn't even a taut 24 hours.
"I had read for the role two weeks before and gotten it," she recalls incredulously. She got her husband in the bargain, too. The stage manager she read with was Michael Ritchie, who until recently was producer of the Williamstown Theatre Festival and now runs the Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. It was love at first reading.
The play was Present Laughter, and that quality is with her still as she swoops grandly through a different type of British confection, The Constant Wife by W. Somerset Maugham, at the American Airlines Theatre. "I think of it as a fluffy Doll's House," she throws out helpfully. "I'm playing a woman in the 1920's, and very early on — like, on page two — I love the way these old English playwrights just jump right in there and tell you where they're going — the audience learns that my husband has been playing around. I don't want to give away the plot, but the comedy lies in how I cope with that situation."
The last person to play this cat-and-rat game on Broadway was none other than Ingrid Bergman. Although Burton traveled in some very rarefied circles in her early years, she never met the actress, "but" — her finger shoots straight in the air — "I met her daughter just the other day. Isabella Rossellini goes to my gym. I don't usually do this, but I went up to her and said, 'I'm Richard Burton's daughter, and I grew up loving your mother's work.' And she was so charming and sweet and very flattering about my dad's acting." Dispensing motherly advice from the sidelines to Burton's Constant Wife is another second-generation star — Lynn Redgrave, matching her red tress for red tress. "I'm so thrilled Lynn is doing this with me because our fathers had such a famous success together in Henry IV years ago. There seem to be quite a few daughters of performers on Broadway now — like Lynn's niece [Vanessa Redgrave's daughter], Natasha Richardson, doing A Streetcar Named Desire.
"The casting that delights me most about The Constant Wife is that the butler will be played by Denis Holmes. He's the only person in the world who's been on the same stage with my father, my mother, my son, my daughter and me!"
Mark Brokaw is directing the revival, which has been nicely dressed up with the likes of Michael Cumpsty (the wayward husband himself), Enid Graham, John Dossett, Kathryn Meisle, John Ellison Conlee and Kathleen McNenney — nine, in all, to make merry. "The last two plays I did on Broadway were pretty heavy going. I think this is a perfect antidote."
(She doesn't mention that those "last two plays" — Hedda Gabler and The Elephant Man — were done in the same 2001-2002 season and that, for them, she was Tony nominated for both Leading Actress and Featured Actress in a Play in the same year.)
"When I first started out, I was blessed with the perfect ingenue face — oval and sunny — so I got a lot of work right off the bat, and I really worked my tail off. It wasn't till I got into my thirties that I grew into my real face. It's a character face, and my roles have improved."
Case in point: Joanne Woodward's backward daughter in "Empire Falls," airing Memorial Day weekend on HBO — "unlike anything I have ever done before," she declares with pride. Also, she has discovered the joys of replacing on Broadway — truly flexing when she followed Kate Nelligan into An American Daughter and Marie Mullen into The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Knowing no fear, she reprised the latter in Dublin — and was adored! — and made her West End debut recently in Three Sisters. It was her fourth time with Three Sisters, her favorite play. Her love of Chekhov was an offshoot of majoring in Russian at Brown when she was planning a career as a diplomat. Instead, in her senior year, she switched to the family business — acting — and practiced diplomacy there. Away from the stage, she is as clear-eyed and level-headed and stage-committed as she was in Present Laughter.
There have been a few changes. Son Morgan Ritchie is now 17 and listing toward the family trade. "I saw him do The Caucasian Chalk Circle," Burton says, adding in a sotto voce whisper (as if that disguised that this was coming from a mother): "He's good!" And daughter Charlotte, seven, spread her acting wings recently in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Her best work to date, reports Mom, was a session with the royals in which she walked across a room crowded with dignitaries and presented to the queen — "That's right: QE II" — a ceremonial key. "I was so proud of her." Methinks a dynasty may be afoot.
Is it, then, any wonder that the role Kate Burton hankers for most these days is the mother-in-the-middle of The Royal Family? "I'm living it. I should play it."
After the interview, she shakes hands with the reporter and exits in present laughter. "Thank you," she says, "for not asking if Elizabeth Taylor's eyes are really that violet."