Maxwell Caulfield
(© Tristan Fuge)
Maxwell Caulfield
(© Tristan Fuge)
Maxwell Caulfield may remain forever youthful in some audience's minds, whether from his breakthrough role as Michael Carringon in Grease 2, his bad-boy part as Miles Colby on TV's Dynasty and The Colbys, or his attention-grabbing, body-baring turn in the Public Theater's 1985 production of Salonika. But while the 51-year-old actor still looks fantastic, he's definitely graduated to more mature roles, such as the middle-aged Park Avenue playboy dentist Julian Winston in Michael Bush's revival of Abe Burrows' 1965 comedy Cactus Flower, now in previews at the Westside Theatre.

In the play, Julian gets involved with a much younger -- and decidedly kooky -- woman named Toni (Jenni Barber) and lies to her that he's married to avoid commitment. When things start to spin out of control, Julian seizes upon his spinster nurse, Stephanie (Lois Robbins), to act the part of his make-believe wife -- a decision which leads to even more romantic complications.

"Julian's quite the operator, which is something I wouldn't know anything about!" says Caulfield, who has long been married to actress Juliet Mills. "I'm always playing these mendacious characters who end up hoisting themselves by their own petard. Harrison Ford gets to play guys in life and death situations, and I'm the guy who's always -- how do I say this politely -- putting his you-know-what in a vice. The irony is, though, I like playing these types."

In charting the course of his character during rehearsal, Caulfield discovered that the part had its own set of challenges. "It's important to maintain a comfortable, charming exterior while still trying to hoodwink," he points out. "The key to making Julian likable -- and not someone who makes audiences recoil -- is to bring a certain innocence to his behavior. Audiences can laugh at his behavior, not scowl."

While Cactus Flower takes place in the 1960s, Caulfield doesn't believe the piece comes off as dated. "It's a classic romantic comedy of the battle of the sexes. It's true that it harks back to a more chauvinistic era, but that's hip right now with TV shows such as Mad Men," he notes. "It has much in common with Boeing, Boeing, the revival of which enjoyed a great Broadway run a couple of seasons ago. You've got the philanderer who thinks he's in the catbird seat only to get upended by the wily women he endeavors to snare."

Michael Bush, Jenni Barber, Lois Robbins, and Maxwell Caulfield
(© Tristan Fuge)
Michael Bush, Jenni Barber, Lois Robbins, and Maxwell Caulfield
(© Tristan Fuge)
Two reasons Caulfield believes the production will connect with audiences are its author and the director. "Abe Burrows' brilliant comic structure and crackling dialogue makes for a clever play. His dialogue is so sharp and his comic rhythms so point on, they almost always insure a laugh. It's important that you don't get in the way of them. You don't need to throw in a 'Well?' or 'So?' You don't need to do anything to make the lines land with a punch," he says.

"And Lois, Jenni and I are in terrific hands because Michael is wildly enthusiastic about the material. He's very funny and understands the science of comic performances. He didn't force the expositional first act, with all its screwball elements, and allowed us to establish our characters so that the laughs play naturally and not as random one-liners."

Caulfield also has great praise for his leading ladies. "The fact that Lois played the role before gives her added authority, which her character must have," he notes. "Stephanie's a super-efficient person who runs the ship and calls the shots, plus she has a lacerating wit, and Lois pulls that off. Thankfully, Lois doesn't practice that wit on the rest of us, but, my God, she delivers these ball-busting lines to perfection. Yet she's also very charming. It's been such a joy to work with her. And Jenni is capable of talking a million miles an hour, which makes her ideal for Toni."

So is Caulfield ready to finally face a live audience? "I was stumbling and bumbling around the first couple of weeks," he admits. "But I'm out of it now and keeping pace with the pack."

For tickets and information about Cactus Flower, click here.