The smoky voice is much bigger than its surroundings, a mere slip of a woman dressed eyeglasses to toe in New York black.
“Of course, dahling.”
Carol Kane is declaiming with a throatiness that’s at full throttle. The character actress’ character actress is announcing that she’s taking over the Geffen Playhouse to throw parties for, well, everybody, just because she likes the building so much.
Perhaps not immediately, though. Much as Kane loves the Westwood theater’s stonework, the only romping she plans to do in its midst is in the guise of the inebriated fallen countess in Georges Feydeau’s unconsummated sex farce “He Hunts” (a.k.a. “Monsieur Chasse!”), which runs through May 19.
Audiences have been applauding her hilarious turn as sodden royalty, echoing The Times’ Lewis Segal, who crowned Kane “the master thief” in a company of aspiring scene-stealers. And judging from the petty larceny she commits every night on stage as Madame Latour, her performance would be far more entertaining for L.A. theater audiences than a mere party.
“I think Carol’s performance in this show has become a bit of an event,” says director David Schweizer. “It’s like, you have to see Carol Kane. To be noticed to such an extent is so great, because I really like it when people are rewarded for taking risks.”
Indeed, anyone expecting to see Simka Gravas, the double Emmy-winning “mountain person” married to Andy Kaufman’s character, Latka, in “Taxi,” will be surprised by Madame Latour, a lusty lush consumed by delusions of former grandeur. And where Simka squeaked, Madame prefers to invoke her inner Tallulah Bankhead.
“We thought it would be liberating if Carol did something that was not her normal voice or her physical demeanor, and every time I’ve worked with Carol it’s been like that,” says Schweizer, who also directed Kane as a gangster’s moll in Thomas Babe’s “Demon Wine” at LATC in 1989. “I’ve never actually had the opportunity to work with her as the breathy-voiced ditz--her signature part.”
Indeed, Kane, 49, and Simka hail from different planets. The product of an intellectual, artistic New York upbringing--her father was a Fulbright scholar and architect, her mother a jazz musician--she’s soft-spoken, self-effacing and extremely thoughtful, choosing her words carefully as she deconstructs her roles and her career.
Kane laughs easily, particularly when her Tallulah voice interrupts her conversation for frequent cameo appearances. The diminutive actress sits in the Geffen’s formally appointed room for donors, wearing a simple Gap jacket and a long, silky skirt, her cotton-candy curls the color of apricots.
“I’m getting a big kick out of the very far-out, broad humor” of “He Hunts,” translated by Philip Littell, she says. “I’m finding it a big challenge though, because it’s not exactly in the modern form of comedy. It starts off more seriously and it escalates into something broadly comedic, and that’s a big challenge for the director and the actress because in our culture now, everything is fast and the jokes have got to come up front or it’s not funny.”
In “He Hunts,” much of the humor lies in character. And for Kane, the countess--who evolved into a woozy tippler as the actress developed the role--was a natural.
“Sometimes every single element of a character is a torturous discovery,” she says, “and with the countess, I kind of fell into her in some big, not fully formed but rapidly formed fashion. David created a framework for me to work with, and the way she’s written, I’m lucky. She’s written juicy.”
But Schweizer says Kane’s penchant for creating such distinctive characters is typical of her work. “I think of her as this genius, consummate actress with limitless range,” he says. Schweizer and Kane are developing a theater piece about Bette Davis.
Though Kane is now often identified with sitcom Simka, she spent many years as a dramatic actress after her stage debut at 14 in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” with Tammy Grimes. Three years later, she snagged her first film role as a girlfriend in 1971’s “Carnal Knowledge.” On that set, she struck up a close friendship with Jack Nicholson and worked with him again two years later, playing a prostitute in “The Last Detail.” Kane began gravitating toward character roles like Squirrel the bank clerk in “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975).
“I didn’t decide to be a character actress,” she says. “I took parts that either I was offered or felt I could do a good job with. It has partly to do with my looks, obviously--I’m not this tall, statuesque sex goddess. And it’s partly my appetite to play very specific, unusual people. But whatever has happened in my career is not planned. It just kind of occurs as you live and then maybe after a while it can be looked at and labeled something.”
In 1976, it was labeled Oscar material. That was the year she was nominated for the role of Gitl, the Orthodox Jewish immigrant bride of “Hester Street.” But in some measure, Kane’s success in creating unique characters instead of mere types backfired: She found it hard to get work.
“That’s an extremely specific character--Russian Orthodox Jewish woman at the turn of the century. I mean, how many of those are coming down the pike?” she says with a laugh.
During Kane’s pre-Oscar week stay in Los Angeles to do press and events, the New York-based actress had to shuttle back and forth between the Beverly Hills Hotel and the unemployment office. She didn’t work for a year, until Gene Wilder cast her in her first comedic role in 1977’s “The World’s Greatest Lover,” which was quickly followed by a part in “Annie Hall” as the first wife of Woody Allen’s character.
“She’s one of the most talented actresses I’ve ever worked with,” Wilder says.
“It was weird that Gene Wilder picked me to do ‘The World’s Greatest Lover.’ I’d never done anything comedic in my entire life, and so it takes someone who has confidence, a director, a writer, to think, ‘I like the work of that person. I’m going to ask her to play this part.’ People usually say, ‘Great. Have they played it before?’ That’s such a limiting point of view. I should think people wouldn’t want you to have played it before, but that’s not how it works.”
As events transpired, Wilder was not just confident, he was right, and Kane’s comedic talents went on to shine in artistically ambitious TV sitcoms like “Taxi.” She later worked on other critically lauded series, “All Is Forgiven” (1986) and “Brooklyn Bridge” (1991), but both had brief shelf lives. So although Kane has scored some of her biggest successes in television, she has also found working on the small screen to be profoundly frustrating.
“‘All Is Forgiven’ was brilliant and got rave reviews. ‘Brooklyn Bridge’ was a beautiful piece of writing,” she says. “It’s mystifying to me how they let good stuff like that go. It’s totally mystifying to me how anyone could have canceled ‘Taxi.’ I don’t understand it because that stuff is rare.”
Still, Kane is rolling those dice again. She’s waiting to hear whether Fox will pick up “The Grubbs,” a comedy pilot she made with Randy Quaid, a colleague from “The Last Detail.” “We’re a majorly underachieving family who’s extremely proud of it. We live on his disability check and that’s real good by us,” she says and laughs.
In recent years, Kane has appeared in several films, mostly small independent movies such as Christine Lahti’s “My First Mister” last year and Cindy Sherman’s “Office Killer.” One of her most difficult roles was playing herself in “Man on the Moon,” the 1999 biopic about her late co-star Kaufman. “It was very odd and emotional for all of us, for everyone to be themselves and for Andy not to be there,” she says.
Meanwhile, the stage continues to beckon. A veteran of the Mt. Olympuses of theater--Lincoln Center, the Public Theater and the Kennedy Center--Kane is also a stalwart of Beth Henley’s plays. She has appeared in six, including the 1994 Los Angeles production of “Control Freaks” with Bill Pullman.
“It’s fun once in a while to get to tell the whole story and experience the whole art instead of picking up little pieces,” she says of her enduring appetite for the theater. “You actually get to go through what the experience of the character is from start to finish, not just pluck out pieces from the middle and do that and then glue together some other thing.”
But as in other media, Kane has learned that every bravo has its price. “It’s frightening and frustrating, too, because from night to night, it changes. You’re better some nights, worse some nights. The chemistry of the whole show changes. And also, you can be really in love with the character, and when the run of the play is over, she’s gone.
“There’s nothing to look back on, no proof that it ever existed, really. You can read scripts but you don’t have the thrill of thinking this really worked out well and now you could see it over and over again. It’s gone.”
“He Hunts” at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tuesday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4 and 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. $28-$46. (310) 208-5454.