Jean Smart is back on the New York stage for the first time in two years. Smart's role of Nessa in the new comedy Fit To Be Tied by Nicky Silver (The Food Chain, Pterodactyls), at Playwrights Horizons through November 3, seems perfect for this actress with the deft ability to alternate regularly between comedy and drama. Nessa is verbal, flamboyant and self-dramatizingdefinitions of Smart's character in the sitcom "Designing Women," which ran five seasons, and last season's "High Society."
"She's also a lunatic," laughs Smart, "which I'll take as a compliment. When they offered it to me, I was flattered and insulted. Nessa's 46! Not even close! But she looks good from so many nips and tucks." She feels her scenery-chewing Ellie on "High Society," a hard-drinking, hard-living, best-selling author, helped her get the part. "I said, 'It's Ellie ten years later with a grown sonwho just happens to be gayand a multimillionaire!" Nessa, after a divorce and remarriage, has been cut off and is trying to cut back in.
Though best known for her TV work, Smart paid her theatrical dues on graduation from the University of Washington in Seattle, working in plays throughout the Northwest and Alaska. She never thought of herself as a comedienne, but knew she was funny. "The roles I tended to play were the great villainesses in literature."
Then came the siren call to go to New York, where her Off-Broadway debut in Last Summer at Bluefish Cove by the late Jane Chambers garnered praise from the critics. "It got me a lot of attention [in New York and Los Angeles], my agent and my first Broadway role."
In 1981's Piaf, starring Jane Lapotaire and Zoe Wanamaker, Smart played a small but important part loosely based on Marlene Dietrich. Then she was offered a musical role, Vera Simpson in a revival of Pal Joey, but it was bad timing. "I was on my way to Los Angeles," explained Smart. "I figured it was time to do something on camera and see what that was all about." In 1983 she was cast in a sitcom ("Teacher's Pet") with Lynn Redgrave. "After that casting directors just decided I was funny. When that happens, you usually get pigeonholed, but I was fortunate. I got to move back and forth"from comedy to dramatic roles in TV movies (such as her acclaimed portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wournos in "Overkill"), miniseries (such as "Scarlett" and, recently, the psychological thriller "Undue Influence" co-starring Brian Dennehey and Patricia Richardson), movies (The Brady Bunch) and theatre (Marvin's Room in L.A. and, two years ago, Jon Robin Baitz's The End of the Day at Playwrights Horizons.)
"But," adds Smart, "crisscrossing can be a problem. In Hollywood if they can't classify you easily, it's harder for them to cast you. It takes effort to think of you in broader terms, which they often don't feel inclined to do. I can't complain because I work steadily as a leading lady and character actress. Comedy is fun, and drama is good because it allows me counterbalance. I always thought rising to the challenge was my job as an actress."
Smart finds theatre a different kind of work than TV and film. "The hours aren't as long, but because of the physical energy, rehearsals and performing, it's more demanding. Since it's what I started out doing, it feels like home. In TV and film you're at the mercy of the cinematographer and editor. They can make a performance as easily as they can break one. Theatre's an actor's medium. I just wish stage actors could make a better living!"
-- By Ellis Nassour