Putting British film star Hugh Dancy into the lead role of Captain Stanhope in the upcoming Broadway revival of R.C Sheriff's World War I drama Journey's End makes perfect sense. "I know a fair amount about World War I; I've even visited the Somme and various battlefields," says the soft-spoken, rakishly handsome Dancy. "The details and specifics of trench warfare are, shall I say, more entrenched in the minds of British schoolboys than Americans."
Moreover, Dancy has a very personal connection to the war and his character. "My great grandfather, Norman Burleigh -- whom I remember from when I was a kid -- was actually an officer in the trenches during the war for three years, much like my character," he says. "That was a remarkable achievement, or maybe one could call it luck, since the life span for an officer at that time was three weeks. My grandfather recently gave me a piece of his daily log, and its remarkable reading. His life was about 80 percent paperwork, so it was this incredible boredom interspersed with these occasional moments of horror."
Dancy was offered the part by director David Grindley, who helmed the very successful 2004 London revival of Journey's End but totally re-cast the show for Broadway. "It's an amazing opportunity to step into a role in a production that's already been tried and tested," says the actor. "Normally, I'd be ashamed to say I didn't see David's production, but I'm very glad I can do it fresh. When you've seen something, first you have to shake off whatever impressions you might have before you can do your job."
Not that Dancy has any qualms about taking on roles made famous by others; his recent notoriety springs primarily from playing the Earl of Essex in HBO's award-winning miniseries Elizabeth I, opposite Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons. "I have no illusions; I am sure I was only asked to do this play because of that film," he says modestly. "The director, Tom Hooper, is a very close friend of mine, so I'm really enjoying all its success for his sake."
Dancy may soon find himself a victim of his own success. In addition to appearing in Journey's End, he'll be constantly on the silver screen in the coming months. He co-stars in the just-released thriller Blood and Chocolate and headlines the political drama Beyond the Gates (opening March 9), in which he plays an idealistic teacher. "It's set during the beginning of the Rwandan genocide, and we filmed it there two years ago. It was a tough shoot, but it felt much tougher afterwards, because any experience like that is heightened. It was so rewarding to do a film like that, even though it's ultimately upsetting. I'm very proud of it."
COMMON GROUND Stephen Kunken is on a roll, acting-wise. He recently concluded a run in the Culture Project's Speak Truth to Power; has filmed a role in David Auburn's The Girl in the Park, with Allesandro Nivola, Sigourney Weaver, Keri Russell, and Kate Bosworth; and in April, he will return to Broadway as Jim Reston in Frost/Nixon, opposite Frank Langella and Michael Sheen.
But right now, he's focused on playing Michael, an Upper West Side copywriter whose marriage is sorely tested by the death of the couple's baby, in the Manhattan Class Company production of Courtney Baron's A Very Common Procedure at the Lucille Lortel. "I had a little hesitation about taking the part; in fact, I just became an uncle for the first time," says Kunken, who's married without children. "But the play is about how this couple and their doctor deal with their grief, and their coping mechanism. They're flawed, funny, sad, and dramatic characters; they have lots of humanity in how they rise above this overwhelming emotion."
Kunken did a certain amount of research for the part. "We've all had friends and family who have been in a similar situation, and I've read a lot of books about what it's like to lose a baby," he says. "We also had this excellent surgeon from New York Downtown Hospital come in and give us a talk. In the end, playing this character has made me a far more prepared person if I get to be a father, and makes me appreciate every moment I have with the people I love."
LIFE UPON THE WICKED STAGE
Is there any more challenging role for an actress than playing an actress? Ask Mary Gordon Murray, who'll be doing just that in Simon Gray's comic thriller Stage Struck, beginning February 7 at L.A.'s Colony Theatre. "There are plenty of traps; you could even say it's filled with land mines, and I may step on some of them," says Murray. "My character is a bit of a diva, one of those gals who's larger than life, but it's fun to walk in that path. And I guess there's a little bit of me in her as well -- but hopefully not too much"
Murray is known to many theatergoers for her work in such Broadway musicals as I Love My Wife, Into the Woods, and Little Me, which snagged her a Tony Award nomination; and to TV fans for her role of Becky Lee Abbott on the ABC soap opera One Life to Live, which she played on and off for more than 20 years. So this kind of play is a departure. "Getting hold of the language is the toughest part for me," she says. "The script has such great density; it's practically anchored in verbal gymnastics. But the language really drags the character to where she wants to go, which is also great."
A native New Jerseyan, Murray is happy living with her husband and son in California, doing the occasional TV guest spot and commercial; but she misses life in the Big Apple. "I am a theater girl, and I always will feel that way," she says. "If One Life to Live hollered, I would definitely go back. It's funny, I was on the Jersey shore this summer with my family, and it seemed like every person on that beach was a One Life to Live fan. In L.A., people are less fazed about being around stars. Or maybe they just don't recognize me."
STAR SEARCHING Sopranos stars Robert Funaro and Maureen Van Zandt will co-star in The Lady Swims Today at the Richmond Shepard Theatre, February 7-18; Nancy Anderson, Maureen Brennan, George Dvorsky, John Ellison Conlee, and Sheldon Harnick will star in the 92nd Street Y's Lyrics & Lyricists program Collector's Items (Other People's Lyrics), Part 2, February 10-12; Sir Tom Stoppard will give a talk about The Coast of Utopia on Wednesday, February 14 as part of Lincoln Center Theater's Platform Series at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre; that same night, cabaret favorite Quinn Lemley will appear in Barnes & Noble's Any Wednesday series at the Lincoln Triangle store, and she'll perform a revised version of her acclaimed Rita Hayworth show, The Heat is On! at B.B. King on February 22. Tony winner Judy Kaye will perform Sing My Heart, a special Harold Arlen program, as a benefit for the Arizona Theatre Company on February 20. Judd Hirsch, Lois Smith, Tammy Grimes and Tony Roberts will take part in the newFood for Thought season, beginning on February 20.
As the month continues, Andrea Marcovicci performs her landmark show I'll Be Seeing You: Love Songs of World War II at the Town Hall on February 23; Matt Cavenaugh, Anita Gillette, John Tartaglia, and Mary Testa will be among the many performers set to participate in My First Time, a benefit for Quality Services for the Autism Community on February 26 at New World Stages; and Kim Huber, Damon Kirsche, Terry Burrell, and Jen Cody will star in the Casa Manana production of Show Boat, February 28-March 4 in Fort Worth, Texas; and on February 28.
LIVING THE DREAM
What's your dream project? Renovating your house? Starring in your own solo show? Well, it turns out that some Broadway big names had their own intriguing answers to that question, which was posed at the National Corporate Theater Fund's Broadway Roundtable luncheon on February 1.
Composer Marvin Hamlisch has already seen his dream project come to life. "A Chorus Line was my dream come true, because it was the one project that was both commercially and artistically successful. So I guess my dream is to get another one of those, not that I expect it to happen." Spring Awakening's young leading lady Lea Michele said hers is "to be involved with work that's progressive, and new and moves people."
Meanwhile, the veteran leading lady Marian Seldes -- about to return to Broadway in Terrence McNally's Deuce -- replied: "My dream is to be lucky enough to continue to work with wonderful playwrights." She also echoed the sentiments of fellow panelists Andrew Hamingson of the Atlantic Theater Company and Victoria Bailey of TDF in dreaming that theater would be more affordable.
Meanwhile, if your dream project is seeing Elaine Stritch up close, you can do that at NCTF's Chairman's Award Gala at Tavern on the Green on Monday, May 21. The legendary star will receive the group's Theatre Artist Award and Carey Perloff, artistic director of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, will receive the NCTF Leadership Award.