'Jeffrey' Scene-Stealer Making the L.A. Scene

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I think somebody said there are three inevitable things for an actor: death, taxation and five years in Los Angeles," Edward Hibbert said with a laugh.

Part of that inevitably has happened to Hibbert. He's looking to stay in Los Angeles for a while. He has even begun taking driving lessons. "I hate it when New York actors say, 'I am going out to L.A. and give "it" a try,' " Hibbert said. "I wanted to come out here with a showcase. With something I could be seen in."

The British actor has found the perfect showcase: "Jeffrey," Paul Rudnick's lauded off-Broadway play about sex and romance in the AIDS era, playing indefinitely at the Westwood Playhouse. Hibbert, who won an Obie Award for the role, steals every scene as Sterling, Jeffrey's flamboyant, interior decorator friend with a penchant for outrageous polka dot lounge wear. Sterling's lover happens to be dying of AIDS.

According to Rudnick, Sterling was very tough to cast. "The minute Edward walked in, he became very much the only possibility," he said. "He was the only one who had the verbal dexterity and sheer style. I never thought of the character as English particularly, but the minute Edward came in, it seemed so right."

As it did to Hibbert. "When I read it, I understood the man completely," said Hibbert--dressed entirely in black--sipping coffee in the abandoned restaurant next to the Playhouse. "What I loved about him was here was a person who deals with the blows or the darker side of life with innate style and wit. It's his ammunition against the adversity of life. I think that's an important motto--one that I adopt myself."

Sterling, though, has come under criticism as being a stereotypical "queen." Those objections have angered Hibbert and Rudnick. "As regards to stereotyping, I get a little irritated," Hibbert said, "because in the end stereotype is only applicable when the playwright writes a role and decides he's going to be the butt of the jokes--'let's bring in the funny gay neighbor lounging around.' I don't think (Sterling) is a stereotype."

"Edward is so dimensional and so moving that his performance sort of defeats those arguments," Rudnick added.

Hibbert said he's not fallen victim to typecasting since "Jeffrey." In fact, he received two offers to do plays in New York and neither role was a Sterling clone. While appearing in "Jeffrey," Hibbert landed the role of a sleazy British editor working at New York paper in Ron Howard's upcoming feature, "The Paper."

"When I was hired, Ron hadn't seen the play," he said. "He saw it subsequently and couldn't believe (it was me). The only thing the characters had in common was that they were English."

Although English, Hibbert actually was born on Long Island. His father, the late Geoffrey Hibbert, was appearing on Broadway at the time with Julie Andrews in "The Boyfriend."

Hibbert, who trained at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, said there was never any doubt he would follow in his father's footsteps. "I was a showoff in school. I never went through that agony of 'Maybe, I should be a brain surgeon?' "

Nine years ago, Hibbert decided to embark on an adventure and come to the United States. "Thanks to 'The Boyfriend' I realized I had an American passport," he said. Not long after arriving in New York he got his first Broadway play, Eve La Gallienne's ill-fated "Alice in Wonderland."

"We were a very happy company," Hibbert recalled, smiling. "Thank God, we had a sense of humor because it was like being on 'The Muppet Show' without any laughs."

Although New York is Hibbert's home base, he occasionally returns to the London stage ("Lend Me a Tenor," "The Mystery of Irma Vep").

Actually, Hibbert is something of a jack-of-all-trades. After finishing an exhausting role in a London play three years ago, he felt he needed a break from acting. A friend who worked in a literary agency asked Hibbert to look after the film and theatrical rights of his clients. Right out of the starting gate, Hibbert sold an unpublished manuscript to a Hollywood producer.

"I think it's going to be made," said Hibbert, who still continues to dabble as a literary agent. "I've been very lucky."

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