Michele Pawk (r) with Sara Niemietz in Hollywood Arms(Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Michele Pawk (r) with Sara Niemietz in Hollywood Arms
(Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Vanity, thy name is definitely not Michele Pawk. While the statuesque redhead is one of Broadway's most striking performers -- it's no wonder the creators of Seussical cast her as the glamorous Mayzie LaBird -- Pawk has repeatedly been willing to look less-than-soignée on stage. Few actresses would have been so willing to spend six days a week as the overly made up prostitute Fraulein Kost in the Roundabout revival of Cabaret (a role which earned Pawk her second Drama Desk nomination as Best Supporting Actress in a musical) or the hard-bitten, badly dressed gun moll Mae in the ill-fated Reefer Madness.

But none of Pawk's past appearances can hold a candle to her current predicament in Hollywood Arms, the stage adaptation of comic legend Carol Burnett's memoir about her less-than-idyllic childhood. Co-written by Burnett and her late daughter, Carrie Hamilton, the show is now in previews at the Cort Theater and will open on October 31. Pawk spends the entire second act of the play in a ratty bathrobe, hair amuss and without a visible stitch of makeup. The reason is simple: As Louise, a barely fictionalized version of Burnett's mother, Pawk is either sleeping off a bender or starting a new one.

"I guess I don't really care about if I look glamorous or not onstage," says Pawk, looking smashing in a man-tailored suit as we talk in her dressing room. Indeed, she cared so little that, for the first two performances, she even took her curtain call in that same, unflattering robe. "Hal [Prince, the show's director] and Linda [Lavin, her co-star] had to convince to me to go put on a dress to come out," she relates. "I felt so stupid doing that the first time! I didn't want the audience to think I was so vain that I had to go backstage and change."

The lovely Michele Pawk
The lovely Michele Pawk
Just as Pawk isn't overly concerned about looking good, she isn't overly concerned about playing good. Louise is the latest in a long line of roles -- including not just Mayzie, Mae, and Fraulein Kost, but also Irene Roth in Crazy For You and Gussie in the York Theater revival of Merrily We Roll Along -- in which Pawk has brought less-than-likeable characters to life. The alcoholic Louise, who first abandons her daughter to pursue a journalism career in Hollywood, may not rival Joan Crawford in the Mommie Dearest sweepstakes, but she's hardly going to be up for any Mother of the Year awards, either. "You know, sometimes the less likeable characters have more intensity," notes Pawk. "And not everyone is likeable all the time. Ultimately, I find Louise understandable. Even at the play's end, she doesn't know that she's no longer a party girl. She just doesn't see herself very clearly."

For Pawk, who has spent the past decade working almost exclusively in musical theater, getting the chance to show off her dramatic skills is a dream come true. "There is a stigma when you only do musicals that you can't act," she feels, "and it can become very hard to break out of that. I think playing Kost in Cabaret helped me get more crossover work." Still, nabbing a role like Louise wasn't a dream she ever imagined. "Getting this part was a fluke," she says. "They had some offer out to some big star -- I don't know who -- and when she passed, I was asked to audition for Hal and Carol." Pawk landed the role, earning raves when the show played at the Goodman Theater in Chicago this past spring, and was asked to repeat her role on Broadway (as was almost the entire cast, which also includes Tony winner Frank Wood, Donna Lynne Champlin, and Sara Niemietz).

Working with Burnett -- not to mention playing her mother -- was a daunting assignment. "Carol is so smart, so witty, she inspires me every day," says Pawk, "but it took me a long time before I felt comfortable being around her. First of all, she is who she is: an icon and a role model for me as an actress and a singer. Second, she's the author of this play. Carol has been with us everyday, both in Chicago and here, for rehearsal. She is very respectful of the process, and she's the first one to pinpoint when something isn't working and to try to fix it. Third, I am playing her mother. Early on in Chicago, I was asking her a lot of questions about her mother and, one day, she just turned to me and said, 'Michele, do whatever works for you.' That was the greatest gift she could give me."

Pawk is a mother herself: She and her husband, actor John Dossett, who met in the mid-'90s while co-starring in Hello Again, have a two-year-old son named Jack. But it's her real-life role as daughter that Pawk has used to flesh out her character, particularly the complicated dynamic between Louise and her mother, played brilliantly by Lavin as a woman who is a hypocritical skinflint but, ultimately, very protective. "There are some similarities in these relationships," says Pawk, "and I know that my mother, who passed away, would love this play. She lived through the Depression and had that worry about having enough money. My mother was the first to criticize, with that 'If I can't tell you, who can?' attitude. But the bigger thing is that I know is how complex mother-daughter relationships can be -- how they can become competitive, although not intentionally."

On stage and off:Michele Pawk and John Dossettin Hello Again
On stage and off:
Michele Pawk and John Dossett
in Hello Again
While Pawk and Lavin have many antagonistic moments on stage, it's a lovefest off stage. "I was a little intimidated by Linda at first," Pawk admits, "but, after a couple of weeks, we just developed this innate closeness. She is such a generous, loving woman. I also feel like we were lucky, as a cast, to have those months in Chicago. We were all separated from our families and friends and so we really had the opportunity to bond."

Although Pawk does sing a little in the show, she considers it a blessing "that my first thought in the morning is not, 'can I sing today?'" Nor is it "Can I play the ukulele?" though she has to do that, too, in Hollywood Arms. "Learning the ukulele was nothing compared to learning to play the accordion in Cabaret," she says with a laugh. "That was the hardest thing I have ever had to do! I play the piano, but no one ever books me for a part where I get to play the one instrument I know." Pawk says that she also knew very little about alcoholism before taking the role -- so, as part of her research, "I watched a lot of drunk movies, from Leaving Las Vegas to Days of Wine and Roses to I'll Cry Tomorrow." When I tell Pawk that she has always reminded me of ...Tomorrow star Susan Hayward, she responds: "I love you for saying that. She was so very daring; she wasn't afraid to look ugly or act ugly. I used to think about her when I was playing Gussie."

After the disappointments of her last two outings, Seussical and Reefer Madness, Pawk is hoping for a long run in Hollywood Arms. Still, reviews and ticket sales will not be the foremost thing on her mind on opening night. "A lot of my family will be here from Pittsburgh," she tells me. "My dad will be here and so will my grandmother, who's 84 and still very sprightly. She'll have all her great-great-grandchildren around her -- and on Halloween no less! She came to see the play in Chicago and, afterwards she said to me, 'Ooh, Michele, I cried so much. But did you have to be so drunk?'"