Kevin Chamberlin wrestled as a heavyweight in high school, he bench presses between 175 and 200 pounds, and if he replaced his genial smile with a scowl, he’d look like one of those guys who gnaws the ropes on TV wrestling shows. About the last thing you’d envision him wearing is a bugle-beaded gown in lavender and silver.
Nonetheless, that’s what the beefy 36-year-old actor will wriggle into as Charlie, a film historian and Mae West fan whose admiration for “the ultimate Tough Girl” leads him to radical sartorial choices, in Claudia Shear’s new play Dirty Blonde. In the piece, at the New York Theatre Workshop, he also plays W.C. Fields and Cary Grant--in fact, nearly all the men in Mae West’s life.
“I consider myself a character actor in the sense that I love to hide behind accents and lots of costumes,” he says. “I guess people exploit that in me, so I can become a lot of different people. It’s a running thing in my career.” He shone in multiple roles in the Drama Dept.’s production of As Thousands Cheer in 1998 and early this year in Encores! Ziegfeld Follies of 1936.
The part in Dirty Blonde was handed to him by director James Lapine, whom he has known for some years. “James Lapine and I worked together on a failed musical called Muscle, which was going to be the first act of [Stephen Sondheim’s] Passion,” explains Chamberlin. “Sondheim was working on it, and then he decided to do Passion as a full-length play, and so he gave up Muscle and gave it to [composer] Bill Finn. So Bill Finn and Ellen Fitzhugh wrote this show called Muscle that we did as a workshop. It was like the Moose Murders of workshops,” he says, laughing. “People say they were there when they weren’t. It was quite a spectacle.”
During Muscle, he and Lapine hit it off, and the director promised that he’d remember Chamberlin if the right project came along. Some years later Lapine saw an article about Mae West in The New Yorker, and became fascinated. Through a playwriting development program run by the Schubert organization, Chamberlin says, “James decided to commission Claudia to write a play. And James said, ‘I want it to be a two-character play, and I want Kevin Chamberlin to do the other role.’ Shear plays another West fan who meets Charlie at the actress’s grave and discovers their common obsession. (The piece has since become a three-character work, with Bill Stillman added to the cast.) Before Dirty Blonde came along, Chamberlin knew almost nothing about West, but his admiration for her has grown with his research. “A lot of people don’t know that she saved Paramount from bankruptcy,” he says. “If she had never come around, Paramount would not be in existence. She was the highest-paid woman in America. She owned half of the Valley in L.A. She was huge in real estate.” West died in 1980, and near the end of her life “she would have her drag queen friends come over--her friends were basically drag queens and boxers and old vaudeville guys. And when the tour buses would go by her house, she would have the drag queens dress up in one of her old dresses and be in the window, and the people on the tour bus would think that they were seeing Mae West. And she would watch from another window.”
Chamberlin came to New York out of an acting program at Rutgers (class of ’85), but most of his theatre roles have been in musicals. Early on he played piano at auditions and coached singers. Eventually he got parts in Smoke on the Mountain and the ensemble of My Favorite Year. As a henchman in The Triumph of Love he had one of the best songs in the show. His latest project was Wise Guys, the Stephen Sondheim musical that recently closed a workshop at the NYTW.
“It was fascinating to work on a show that was really being created from the ground up and to see new songs come in every day,” he says, but the show’s temporary demise saddens him. “There were, like, three different shows, and they didn’t all come together.” Once again he played multiple roles. As a prospector in the Alaska Gold Rush, he received “the first Sondheim lyric I’ve ever sung of my own.” The thought of it makes him chuckle: “Gold! Yeah, bet your little tittie, boy.”
Chamberlin moves back and forth in theatre, TV and movies, but “I kind of get sick of each medium after a while, if I have a bad experience,” he says. “I was out in L.A. and I had done a couple TV series. I was sitting in a trailer for, like, 18 hours waiting to go on to a set and go, ‘Vector 2-9-4’--one of those number lines, where you’re some Army radar guy. It’s a lot of money, but I didn’t go to school to do that.” Still, he had noticeable parts in "In and Out" and in last summer’s low-budget gay-themed movie "Trick, " which garnered enough praise at the Sundance Festival to receive a national release by Fine Line.
Although Chamberlin’s involvement in musicals has been on stage, he is also a composer. After Dirty Blonde, the Drama Dept. will do a spring workshop of “an evening of shorts that are all Twilight Zone-ish psychological thrillers based on short plays that I’ve written.” Each of the four pieces is scored to a different style of music: 20th-century opera, musical comedy, jazz, and heavy-metal, and each, he says, has a moral. He collaborated on the music for the first two.
Next year will also see Chamberlin move from character actor to leading man. In the upcoming film "Herman, U.S.A.," based on a true story, he plays a Minnesota farmer who advertises--along with other bachelors in his farming community--for a bride. And he is in negotiations to play the lead role of Horton the Elephant in The Seussical, due to arrive next September at the Richard Rodgers after a Boston tryout.
“In Seussical I get to be the big ballad romantic lead, which character actors never get to do,” he says excitedly. “We’re usually Billis in South Pacific, or Nicely Nicely, or one of the gangsters in Kiss Me, Kate. We never get the romantic lead, and in both of these shows I’m doing the romantic lead. It’ll probably never happen again in my life. But I always love to be challenged, and in that respect I’m being challenged, because until this point I’ve always been the henchman and the second banana.”