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THEATER : The Sweet ‘Kiss’ of Success : After 20 years of anonymity, Brent Carver is being hailed as a new star--with a Tony nod to boot--for his turn in the musical

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In a cluttered dressing room at the Broadhurst Theatre, Brent Carver was about to dive into a take-out dinner from a local vegetarian restaurant.

“I’ve got to eat something before I undergo ‘molina-ization’ ” he said. “It’s a new term we’ve coined around here. To be ‘molina-ized’ means to be transformed.”

The term was inspired by Molina, the character that the soft-spoken 41-year-old Canadian actor was about to become. Carver’s role as the chatty gay window dresser whose fantasies can turn the grim reality of prison into a Hollywood-style extravaganza is at the center of the John Kander/Fred Ebb Broadway musical “The Kiss of the Spider Woman.” The musical, which has been making a big name for this heretofore little-known actor, opened on Broadway last month after an initial production in Purchase, N.Y., and revised productions in Toronto and London.

Based on Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel about the relationship between Molina and his political-activist cellmate, Valentin, the role already has won actor William Hurt an Oscar in Hector Babenco’s 1985 dramatic film version of the story. Now, though the much better-known Chita Rivera, in the dual role of Aurora/Spider Woman, and Anthony Crivello, as Valentin, have both earned acclaim in this musical directed by Hal Prince, Carver is the one being hailed as the bright new star, already earning a Tony nomination last week for leading actor in a musical.

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This all comes as something of a surprise for a classically trained actor who has toiled for more than two decades in theater, film and television, mostly in his native Canada. His resume has included stints at the prestigious Canadian Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where he starred in everything from “Hamlet” to “Pirates of Penzance,” from “Foxfire,” with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, to “Cabaret.” And in 1979, the actor made his U.S. stage debut at the Mark Taper Forum in a production of “The Tempest” with Maggie Smith. directed by Robin Phillips, then Stratford’s artistic director.

But it was in Toronto in 1992 that Carver was cast as Molina by Prince, first as an understudy for Richard Thomas, the original choice for Molina. When Thomas bowed out (for “personal reasons,” according to the director), Carver’s ticket to Broadway was punched. After a tryout run in Toronto last summer, followed by a triumphant London engagement, “Kiss” opened in New York on May 3--just in time to offer some stiff competition for the Tony Awards to “The Who’s Tommy”: Both shows won 11 nominations each, including for best musical.

“Brent is a real discovery, a real superstar,” said Prince, adding that when Thomas bowed out there was no talk of bringing in another star. “We wanted him.”

The director said that it was important to him that the audience not like either Valentin or Molina at first, that it slowly warmed to the characters: “Valentin is appropriately irritating. But I find Molina amusingly irritating.”

Such flamboyant charm might have been something of a stretch for Carver, whose responses to questions in a recent interview were as monochromatic and neat as the conservative slacks, shirt and tie he wore on his wiry frame. The only memory of Molina in evidence was in his cherubic blond locks and the slide his voice takes when confronted with any question that is remotely personal.

“My fantasy life?” Carver asked in a high-pitched squeak when asked if his own imagination parallels in any way the “fabulousness” that is his character’s stock in trade.

“I don’t know, I think my fantasies are probably sort of more 19th Century. More the Wild West,” said the British Columbia native. “It’s a place I moved away from but it constantly calls me back--the pine smell, the lakes, the trees, the mountains. It’s a tough place to make a living but a great place to live.”

The third of seven children born to a father who worked as a logging truck driver and a mother who worked as a waitress and clerk, Carver grew up in the small town of Cranbrook in the Canadian Rockies. “None of my brothers and sisters are in show business,” he quipped, pointing to scores of family pictures decorating his dressing room table. “They’re all sane.”

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His participation in church choirs and school plays pointed Carver early on in the direction of a career onstage, though he briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a teacher. Before completing his last year at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, he jumped at the opportunity to get his Equity card by joining a national tour presenting theater for children.

Based in Vancouver until 1979, when he moved to Toronto, Carver said his ambitions centered on realizing a protean career. “If you were lucky and didn’t mind traveling, you could work nonstop in a variety of roles in all the mediums,” he said.

In the early ‘70s, after a stint in musical revues in small theaters around Canada, he starred in the play and film “One-Night Stand,” a dark thriller in the mode of “Looking for Mr. Goodbar.” The following year, he co-starred with Michael J. Fox, then a relative unknown, in a Canadian summer replacement television series, “Leo and Me.” In between television and film gigs, he earned acclaim for his work at the Stratford Festival as well as in classical productions in Edmonton and Toronto.

While doing “One-Night Stand” in Toronto, Carver shared a two-story house with actor Martin Short and his wife, Nancy Dolman. Ironically, this year Short was thought to be virtually assured the Tony for best actor in a musical, for his role in “The Goodbye Girl,” until “Kiss” opened. Now the two will compete for the award.

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“I saw Martin for the first time recently at a theater luncheon,” Carver said. “He just rolled his eyes and said, ‘Can you believe all this?’ ”

For now, at least, the bachelor actor appears to be handling “all this” with equanimity. If Carver has anything in common with Molina--whose life is defined by the way he “buckled the belt, folded the felt” in his window-dressing craft--it is the perfectionism that both bring to their work. They appear to share a steeliness as well. Carver attributes his own personal strength to his rough-hewn Irish and Welsh immigrant family.

“They are a strong people,” he said, “but at the same time they are extraordinarily vulnerable. They see the other side. They have a terrific empathy.”

Did that apply to seeing their son and brother in a role that has him mincing about a cell, planting a full and passionate kiss on his beloved Valentin’s lips?

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“Oh sure,” he said coolly. “They were very moved by the show. They’re quite understanding. Even when they saw me in a pretty wild production of ‘Tartuffe.’ It was set in the West and in one scene, I had to wear a pair of backless leather chaps with nothing on underneath. After that, they came backstage and said, ‘Yes, dear, that was fun.’ ”


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