Ben Shenkman and Laura Linney in Sight Unseen(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Ben Shenkman and Laura Linney in Sight Unseen
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Talk about versatility: Laura Linney's Broadway credits range from Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler to Philip Barry's Holiday to Arthur Miller's The Crucible. The actress has also played highly disparate roles in such films as The Truman Show, The House of Mirth, You Can Count on Me, and Mystic River, while her television credits include everything from Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City to her recent appearances in a pivotal role on Frasier.

Clearly, she doesn't need to do theater for lack of film and TV work, but make no mistake: Linney is a dyed-in-the-wool stage actress. She's about to open on Broadway in the Manhattan Theatre Club's new production of Sight Unseen, Donald Margulies's play about what happens when a soul-searching artist visits the former lover whom he selfishly dismissed years earlier. Ben Shenkman (Proof on Broadway, Angels in America on TV) is playing Jonathan Waxman, the artist, and Linney is his ex, Patricia. What makes Linney's casting especially interesting is the fact that, in the 1992 Off-Broadway staging of Sight Unseen, she had the supporting role of a German television interviewer named Grete; that part has now gone to Ana Reeder, and Byron Jennings rounds out the MTC cast in the role of Patricia's new lover, Nick.

"New York has always been my home base," says Linney, who was born in Manhattan. "I try to be consistent in doing theater because once you're away too long, it's very hard to go back. It gets scarier and scarier as the years roll by. You can lose your vocal skills, your physical skills. I find that a year and a half is about as long as I can go between theater jobs -- and even that's pushing it. So I try to do a play every other season." Of her most recent Broadway stint in The Crucible, she comments, "It was just one of those great, great experiences. Arthur Miller was around a lot, which was remarkable. He was very much a part of that company and was extremely supportive."

Linney is the daughter of playwright Romulus Linney, so one might guess that she was bitten by the theater bug at a young age -- and this turns out to be true. "I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do," she says, "but I knew that I wanted to be involved in the theater in some way. I actually started out as a technical apprentice; it took me a while to get up the courage to say that I wanted to be an actress. I was your typical theater geek in high school and then I majored in theater arts in college." Linney studied theater at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and later at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York. She also did "years of summer stock." And how did her father feel about her pursuit of an acting career? "He didn't overly encourage or discourage me," she says. "I think he just sort of took a deep breath and hoped for the best -- as did my mother, who raised me." (Her parents are divorced.)

On the subject of her acting range, Linney is humble. "I wish I could say that I have the power to make all the choices in my career," she remarks, "but very few people are in that position. I've been extremely fortunate and I've tried to do as many different things as I possibly can, which is why I sort of jump from theater to television to big-budget movies to low-budget movies. I think that makes you a better actor overall and I wouldn't want it any other way." As she looks forward to opening night of Sight Unseen, Linney expresses great admiration for co-star Shenkman and director Daniel Sullivan, and further remarks that "It's really interesting to revisit a play that was a huge part of my life 12 years ago."

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Though Ben Shenkman is best known to the world at large for his unforgettable portrayal of Louis Ironson in Mike Nichols's magnificent television film version of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, he too is an experienced and skillful stage actor -- skillful enough to have earned a Tony Award nomination for his performance as Hal in the original Broadway cast of David Auburn's Proof.

Thrilled to be playing Jonathan Waxman in Sight Unseen, Shenkman is highly enthusiastic about his co-stars, director Daniel Sullivan, and the piece itself. "I've admired every play of Donald Margulies that I've ever seen," he says. "I respond to his work both as an actor and as an audience member, with no exceptions. I loved Dinner With Friends. I walked out of that play thinking, 'God, that's exactly the kind of thing I'd like to do: a realistic play about a small group of people where it all happens in the conversations, directed by Dan Sullivan.' A year later, I was in Proof, directed by Dan Sullivan. And now here we are again, this time working on a Donald Margulies script. It's exactly where I want to be. That said, I think it's a very challenging play and character, and I'm really glad to have great collaborators to help sort it out."

What does Shenkman find most challenging about Sight Unseen? "Because the play is written in a collage style and the story is told out of order rather than in a straight linear style," he says, "it strikes me as holding the audience at arm's length emotionally -- for a specific purpose. It's designed very astutely. One thing Laura told me before we started rehearsals was, 'The play absolutely works and the wonderful thing for us is that we don't have to worry about that.'"

Shenkman is delighted to be working with Linney for the first time. "I think I've seen all of her movies," he says. "The only time I saw her in a play was in The Crucible and she was outstanding." Coincidentally, Shenkman also studied theater at Brown, a few years after Linney was there. "She was spoken of in hushed tones," he remarks. And to hear him talk about Dan Sullivan, one gets the impression that this actor would give just about anything for continued opportunities to work with this director.

"Sight Unseen is actually our third project together," he notes. "Before Proof, I was in a production of the Moss Hart play Light Up the Sky that he directed at Hartford Stage. The rare thing about him is how little he says; he has tremendous economy and I think he wants to be as small a part of an actor's psyche as possible during rehearsals. That takes a high level of confidence, which he has. Even with some really gifted directors, you're contending with a description of what they would like to some degree. With Dan, there's much less of that. He understands what part of the total picture is the actor's contribution and what isn't, so he doesn't ask you for things that are already provided by the writing or can be provided by the staging. He's very smart about that. Generally, when he does ask something of you, it's aimed at solving a specific problem and it's almost always useful. For the most part, he allows things to happen organically. That's a luxurious way for an actor to work."