Deborah Harry puts herself on the line Off-Broadway in Sarah Kane's Crave.
That revelation comes as no surprise, particularly not from the woman who spent most of the '80s pleading with music fans to "Call me, call me anytime." These days, a conversation with the pop icon focuses not on computers or the international celebrity she gained as a rock star, but on her current project: a role in the Off-Broadway production of Crave.
Produced by Axis Theatre and directed by Randy Sharp, Crave introduces American audiences to the work of controversial British playwright Sarah Kane. Filled with imagery of love, loss, and longing, Crave is a dramatized deconstruction of a troubled human mind. Ironically, it was written less than a year before Kane killed herself in a London hospital.
"It's about inner turmoil," explains Harry. "It's not really a play that's plot driven. I guess it's about madness. It works beautifully just as a long narrative poem. I couldn't resist it; I really wanted to be a part of it."
The platinum blonde's introduction to Axis took place a few years ago when, as a theatergoer, she discovered the group at its former Duane Street residence. "Somehow I got involved by coming down and seeing their early shows," recalls Harry. "They were witty and different." The relationship between the rock star and the theater company grew until, eventually, Harry showed a desire to be more than just a fan.
"Debbie and I have been friends for about four years," notes Sharp, who has directed Picture This, Frankenstein, Beckett's Play, Büchner's Woyzeck, and the summer serial Hospital at Axis' current home on Sheridan Square. "When she expressed an interest in doing a play with us, I knew that Crave was the right choice."
Known for its avant-garde, multimedia presentations, Axis explores Kane's text with a mix of film, audio, and live action. Sharp reveals that "the inner lives, memories and fantasies of the characters in Crave are shown through the 'eyes' of several screens--openings into 'their city,' windows in an apartment building through which daily interior lives can be seen."
Building on the script's inherent intensity, the director hopes that Kane's U.S. debut will evoke a powerful response from theatergoers. "Audiences will be moved as they hear things they've never verbalized," claims Sharp. "They'll be relieved and in disbelief that these characters are able to put into language feelings they couldn't even tell their closest friend." Adds Harry, "Audiences will be affected as I was when I first read this play. They will have a very emotional response to Crave."
In London, critics responded to Kane's work with an almost unanimous loathing. After the author's Royal Court debut, reviews blasted the young author's writings as "vile," "a disgusting feast of filth," and "devoid of intellectual merit."
"The British press can be very, very tough," remarks Harry, whose 1978 single "Denis" with Blondie first charted in the United Kingdom. "They use language extremely well. They have a lot of curse words. And they string these phrases together in a way that peels the skin off from 20 paces. It can be pretty heavy." No stranger to criticism, Harry remembers her own experiences with bad reviews, saying, "The hardest I was ever hit was after my first trip to the U.K. I waited until I got back home to read all the criticism. When I discovered what they wrote, I stayed in bed for two weeks!"
As an actress, Harry has received praise for performances in several independent films, including Heavy, Six Ways to Sunday and John Waters' camp classic Hairspray. Nor does Crave mark Harry's first appearance on the legitimate stage. In the spring of 1983, following a lead role in the cult film Videodrome, the rocker-turned-actress starred with comedian Andy Kauffman in the short-lived Broadway play Teaneck Tanzi: The Venus Flytrap.
Billed as an offbeat wrestling match between the sexes, Teaneck Tanzi (based on a successful London production) closed immediately after its opening night. "The reason we closed, and I know this sounds like I'm making it up, was because of the critics," claims Harry. "They didn't like the show. They didn't appreciate the popularity of wrestling. They weren't into the audience participation, which was a very important part of that show. So, we closed despite advance sales and a certain amount of popularity through word of mouth. Another reason we closed was that the backers of Teaneck Tanzi had also put up millions of dollars for My One and Only, the musical with Tommy Tune and Twiggy. They put most of their money behind that show, and our little show got the ol' heave ho."With the opening of Crave on November 8, Harry is willingly exposing herself to critics and theatergoers alike in the company of fellow cast members Brian Barnhart, David Guion, and Kristin Di Spaltro. Is there any concern that Harry's fame will overshadow the production? "No!" states the director assuredly. "Debbie has a deep and powerful understanding of the text. People will see that, and not that she's a famous pop star."
"I really focus on being part of an ensemble," says Harry. "If you're working with a group of people who are involved and willing to stay in the moment, it can be very exciting. Even in performance with Blondie, I always enjoyed it when the band went through some weird mistake or ad lib and everyone came out in the same place. That's the way it is. That's the way it should be. I mean, every day is different, right? You pick up the phone and it's a different fucking idiot that you have to deal with."
In addition to Crave, Harry has several films in various stages of pre- and post-production. She plays the owner of a lesbian strip club in the edgy gay comedy The Fluffer, and co-stars with Dennis Hopper, Sally Kirkland, and Karen Black in Steve Balderson's highly anticipated Firecracker. Other big-screen projects include Red Lipstick, Deuces Wild, and The Tulse Luper Trilogy (which is set to co-star Madonna and Kathy Bates).
On the music scene, Harry and her Blondie bandmates are "starting to work" on a follow-up to their successful 1999 release "No Exit." Also, she's making several appearances with Elvis Costello and the Jazz Passengers. Most recently, the star added her voice to a bonus track on the soon-to-be-released holiday CD from downtown darlings Kiki & Herb, Do You Hear What We Hear?.
Though Harry is nearing the age when most people consider retirement, the forever-young blonde bombshell continues to find projects to enhance her résumé. Why the need to keep busy, I ask? She pauses, then answers simply: "If I'm not working, I'm neurotic!"