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Dinner with Dana Delany

The TV star returns to her theater roots in Donald Margulies' Dinner With Friends logo
Dana Delany in Dinner With Friends
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
When her spring TV pilot didn't get picked up, Dana Delany decided to spend her summer vacation Off-Broadway, where she has joined the ensemble in Donald Margulies' Pulitzer Prize-winning play Dinner With Friends. Delany is simply terrific as Karen, the sensible wife of Gabe (original cast member Matthew Arkin, who has grown enormously in the role since November). Rounding out the current company are Carolyn McCormick and Jonathan Walker as Beth and Tom, whose impending divorce sends their happily married friends into a tizzy of hurt feelings and self-examination.

It's definitely worthwhile to see Dinner With Friends a second time, because Margulies and director Daniel Sullivan have allowed the replacements to put their stamp on each role. Walker is much more sympathetic than Kevin Kilner as the cuckolding husband; Delany brings warmth and humanity to a role that seemed more judgmental in Lisa Emery's performance. The entire play draws far more laughs than it did on opening night.

Seasoned playgoers may remember Delany as an ingénue in the1980 Broadway production of Hugh Leonard's A Life, starring Roy Dotrice. (She caught Dotrice's Tony-winning performance in A Moon for the Misbegotten before it closed last month.) Born in Manhattan in 1956, Dana Welles Delany grew up in Connecticut and received a top-drawer education (Phillips Academy, Wesleyan University) before seeking her fortune as an actress. After A Life, she appeared in Nicholas Kazan's Bloodmoon and traveled with that production to Los Angeles, where she settled down to pursue a career in TV and film.

Best known for her Emmy Award-winning three-year run as Army nurse Colleen McMurphy in China Beach, Delany has kept busy in the past decade with a variety of projects, from highbrow TV fare like The Margaret Sanger Story to the notorious S&M film comedy flop Exit to Eden. (Her only foray back to New York during that time was in the short-lived 1995 Broadway revival of Brian Friel's Translations.) Just last week, TV viewers could saw Delany as a plucky victim of the debilitating illness scleroderma in Just Hope, co-starring her former boyfriend Henry Czerny (who played Captain Bluntschli in the Roundabout's recent production of Arms and the Man).

For our TheaterMania interview, Delany was down-to-earth and quick to laugh. She's clearly enjoying being on stage in a hit play; here's hoping she'll come back to New York more frequently.


TM: What drew you to Dinner With Friends?

DELANY: I just thought it was very smartly written. Having never been married, that's not something I totally relate to. For me, it was more about being in your 40s, looking back on your life and asking, "What are my friendships about?" We all have friendships that fall by the wayside, and I find that interesting.

TM: Did the idea of being a replacement in an Off-Broadway show give you pause?

DELANY: Oh, god, no. I was really honored to be asked. When I came to see the play for the first time, I was so impressed. And it's really a luxury to watch somebody else do it; you can see what the hard parts are, and see the example set. I sort of compare it to making a cake from a mix rather than from scratch. The hardest thing was learning the lines, which I have never had a problem with before. I wasn't learning them organically [during rehearsal]. I had to learn them by rote. I really owe my sister a lot, because she would drill me on the lines.

TM: Did you identify with your character at all?

DELANY: Actually, I'm not very much like Karen, because I tend to see the gray areas in everything; so I found it hard, at first, to be judgmental about people. Now, I'm starting to find it very liberating to be so opinionated! [laughs] There's something nice about being so definite about things.

TM: I totally identified with Karen. Her attitude is, "What's the matter with these people?!"

DELANY: [laughs] Life is very black and white for her, and I find that women relate to that--especially after a certain age. You start to think, "Come on! Quit equivocating, make a decision in your life, and move on!"

Matthew Arkin and Delany in
Dinner With Friends
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
TM: You have a very nice stage partnership with Matthew Arkin. How did that develop in such a short time?

DELANY: First of all, he's the comedy king. When it comes to timing, he's incredibly helpful. And he was very open. I had about 10 hours of rehearsal, and he stayed longer than he was being paid to. He was very concerned about the relationship [between the characters].

TM: You're both Wesleyan University alumni.

DELANY: Yes. He was being tricky: He asked me, "When did you graduate?" [laughs] He was just trying to find out how old I am. He's four years younger than me. Ironically, I saw [Donald Margulies'] Sight Unseen with [Matthew's brother] Adam Arkin, who played my husband on China Beach.
TM: Did you consider moving back to New York after China Beach ended?

DELANY: I really like L.A. I was born in Manhattan, and all my family is here, but I'm a wuss when it comes to cold weather. L.A. can get a bit monotonous after a while, which is why I love going on location. But I'm having a great time here this summer; New York is in great shape now.

TM: Do you feel that you have a special affinity for Irish writing? You'd be great in Our Lady of Sligo, the Sebastian Barry play that Sinead Cusack recently did in New York.

DELANY: I do think I understand Irish writing in some innate way. I like the poetry of it and the ambiguity of it. That's what I like about Dan Sullivan as a director, if one can make generalizations: I appreciate his understanding of the need for ambiguity in the work. What interests me as an actor are the gray areas, where people are not everything that they seem.

TM: Have you done theater in Los Angeles?

DELANY: Not since Bloodmoon, but I recently became part of a reading series called the Playwrights' Kitchen Ensemble. We do readings of plays and screenplays by new authors, and I have such a ball doing that, it got me interested in doing theater again.

TM: You seem very much at home on stage.

DELANY: I never thought I was, to be honest with you. Maybe it's just that I feel more confident now. I used to think of the audience as the enemy, that they were judging me. Now, I feel, "We're all in this together; let's have fun." Maybe I'll do more theater. Now that I'm older, the parts are much better on stage.

TM: How do you balance your personal and professional life?

DELANY: I don't have much of a life. [laughs] And that's by choice. My life is very simple-I can pick up and go anytime I want. I have a boyfriend, but that's about it. I really love to work. That's been my life.

TM: Is your boyfriend in the business?

DELANY: No, he's a wine expert in Los Angeles. I drink very well!

TM: Did you make a conscious decision to concentrate on your career rather than having a family?

DELANY: Not really. I always expected that I would get married and have children, but it just didn't happen. I still could, but I love my freedom.

TM: Are you happy with the career choices you've made since China Beach?

DELANY: Well, some things worked and some things didn't. Probably the hardest moment in my career was Exit to Eden. That was the first movie Garry Marshall did after Pretty Woman, and everyone said, "Oh, you have to do this!" I don't think the movie was bad. It's actually quite funny, and has developed a bit of a cult following.

TM: Most people haven't seen it, but they remember the still pictures [of Delany and Rosie O'Donnell in leather S&M gear].

DELANY: I think I looked good in those pictures! [laughs] Garry didn't know how to make [the movie] be erotic and also a comedy.

TM: So Garry Marshall owes you. Maybe you should do something at his Falcon Theatre in L.A.

DELANY: It's a beautiful theater, and he's spoken to me about working there.

TM: What's the lure of a TV series for you?

DELANY: There are several things. I like the family feeling, and I like the fact that the character is constantly changing. This is all with the understanding that you have good writers. I've been very picky. I've been offered a lot of shows, including some that have become big hits.

TM: Which ones? Tell!

DELANY: No, I can't. [laughs] People would say, "Is she crazy?" I really wanted to do this new show with Tom Fontana [creator of Oz]. It didn't get picked up, so I'll find another one.

TM: How about a comedy?

DELANY: Maybe. It's certainly a nice lifestyle, and I really enjoy the comedy in Dinner With Friends. You never know!

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