"HAVE you ever proposed to a woman, and she said, 'Let me think about it'?" Jim Simpson is asking Benjamin Bratt.
"No," the actor says, drawing a laugh from Julianna Margulies, who is sitting next to Bratt.
"Of course, you wouldn't have," she says, appraising her dark-haired companion with a look that says: "What woman in her right mind would turn you down?"
It's the second week of rehearsals for "Intrigue With Faye," and the two actors are hunkered at a table, going over scenes with director Simpson as playwright Kate Robin looks on. The new domestic drama opens June 11 for a limited engagement at the Acorn Theatre, the temporary off-Broadway home of the adventurous MCC Theater.
For now, they're in Studio 7B of the Duke Studio rehearsal rooms in midtown Manhattan, adrift in Styrofoam coffee cups and No. 2 pencils, which the four occasionally wield to make notes on their scripts.
Simpson's question is germane to the scene they've just finished reading, revealing a crucial aspect in the troubled relationship between Kean, a documentary filmmaker, and Lissa, a psychotherapist. Kean is challenging Lissa's level of commitment to him after nearly five years: "Like if I asked you to marry me and told you I was ready to really commit to you, and I clearly meant it, how would you feel? Honestly." To which Lissa replies, "Um ... nauseous?"
While Bratt may not appear to be a candidate for such a reaction, he seems comfortable in Kean's skin, a mixture of vulnerability and bravado. He plays a man who is less successful as a filmmaker than as someone who knows he's catnip to women.
When Simpson, a calm, reassuring presence with his glasses down on his nose, suggests that Bratt's reaction to Lissa's "nausea" is a "little too pat," the actor makes a note in his script.
"Right, it's a discovery; it's not leading her on, not rubbing her nose in it," he says.
The chemistry between Bratt and Margulies is relaxed as they banter and joke through the rehearsal.
The Emmy-winning actress ("ER") has made periodic forays onto the stage, most recently in 2001 in Jon Robin Baitz's "Ten Unknowns." Bratt has had less experience on the boards of late. Although he is an alumnus of the master's program at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and appeared early in his career at the Los Angeles Theatre Center and Theatre Geo, "Intrigue With Faye" marks Bratt's New York stage debut as well as his first return to theater since he appeared in Shakespeare Festival/LA's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" a decade ago.
"Julianna's this tightly wound, very smart woman and you need someone very powerful to match her," Simpson says later. "Benjamin can do that and be loose as a goose and quite funny as well. Sexual chemistry is something that you either get lucky with or you don't, and we've gotten very lucky with these two."
Let's go to the tape
Chemistry between the stars will be essential if the actors are to pull off a compelling portrait of a once-hot relationship in crisis -- particularly as they will be competing for the attention of the audience with a third "character" on stage with them: the large monitor located on a console in the studio. Confronted with Kean's womanizing and Lissa's ambivalence, the couple decides to enter a contract to be totally honest with each other for 40 days -- a trust they enforce by videotaping each other's every move. Intermittently throughout the play, other characters emerge on video to throw curves into their experiment in intimacy, including Lissa's colleague Frank (Craig Bierko), on whom she has a crush, and two of Kean's conquests, Tina (Jenna Lamia) and Faye (Gretchen Mol), a television producer. Michael Gaston, Swoosie Kurtz and Tom Noonan also make video cameos.
"It's not just a cute idea, but very much what the play is about," Simpson says of the segments. "I'm very aware that when you put a video image on the stage, all eyes will go to that. But it's a testament to Kate's writing that, I think, the play and the actors will more than hold their own."
Robin, 36, a slight, intense woman who is a writer-producer on the HBO series "Six Feet Under," began "Intrigue With Faye" while taking a graduate playwriting course at New York University 10 years ago. The play had been precipitated by what Robin calls a "very dysfunctional relationship with major trust problems" -- one that had aroused within her "the desire to control," to have constant access to the private life of her partner. But when plans for an earlier production in New York fell through, she shelved the play and didn't look at it again until four years ago.
"There had been another breach of trust in a long-term relationship I was then having, one that had appeared very healthy," she recalls in a phone interview. "I think my unconscious was telling me something."
Following a 1999 workshop of the play at New York Stage and Film at Vassar that featured Margulies and Reg Rogers, there was a brief spurt of interest among a number of New York nonprofit theaters. But Robin says that they were divided over what revisions were required of the play, which more pointedly satirized its protagonists and the role of video in contemporary life.
"There were two aesthetic camps: those that liked it as a contemporary urban satire addressing societal issues in this overt way, and those who were drawn to the emotional truth of these characters and were disappointed when the satire got in the way of that," says Robin, adding that she sided with the latter and in the most recent rewrites stuck more closely to the emotional journey of Lissa and Kean.
"These characters are overtly narcissists, but what they're doing is actually very courageous and worthwhile," the playwright says. "They're committed to growing. The play is really more about trust than it is about video. It's about the way relationships are a laboratory for growth."
MCC, which held the New York premiere of "Wit" and the recent Neil LaBute antiheroic Sept. 11 drama "The Mercy Seat," starring Liev Schreiber and Sigourney Weaver, seemed a natural fit for her play.
Like LaBute, whose films include the brutish "In the Company of Men," Robin appears to be absorbed with how men and women get under each other's skins in complex and excoriating ways. "I think I'm more forgiving, more interested in what is light about dark motivation, and he's more interested in finding the darkness in the light. But we're both willing to explore what is funny about human sensibilities."
MCC's artistic directors, Robert LuPone and his partner Bernard Telsey, who is also a casting agent, said they weren't worried about following "Mercy Seat" -- which was commercially successful but critically dismissed -- with another high-profile production featuring two stars. For one, the box office clout is always welcome, particularly in economically straitened times. But for another, they were confident they could protect the production by hiring the right director and stars.
Simpson came to mind because LuPone, who is also an actor, had worked with him in another Robin play, "The Light Outside," and because he was available after directing the film adaptation of "The Guys," the Sept. 11 drama that started at Simpson's Flea Theater.
"Jim has this urbane, downtown-y, cool, intelligent feel, which is right for 'Intrigue With Faye,' " LuPone says. "[His] just having finished a film, I thought, would help with the videos. As far as the stars go, I think we need to personally be taken to task if we ever hire actors who are famous but who can't deliver the play. But to Bernie's credit, that hasn't happened. And I don't think it will happen."
'You've got to get me a man!'
For the MCC production, Margulies was first on board. A veteran of the workshop, she was pleased with Robin's revisions, which gave her character more of an emotional arc, and insisted on having a lot of say in the casting of her co-star.
"Julianna was tossing out a lot of alpha males, and I was looking for a slightly more beta guy," the playwright says. "Jim really wanted a sexy guy and so there was a lot of debate and disagreeing and frustration. Julianna kept screaming, 'You've got to get me a man, you've got to get me a man!' And then one day, she called from Prague and said, 'Benjamin Bratt.' And I thought, 'Yeah.' "
Margulies was filming "Hitler: The Rise of Evil" in Eastern Europe when her agent, Steve Dontanville, called to recommend the former "Law & Order" star, who is also on his client list. "It was a no-brainer," says the actress in a joint phone interview with Bratt just before the two were to begin previews at the Acorn.
Margulies says that she had been impressed with Bratt's work in the film "Pinero," and that she'd called around to friends and associates to suss out how he was to work with. "Everybody told me he was down-to-earth, a real human being, so you don't pass up chances like that," she says.
Bratt's wife, actress Talisa Soto, had wanted to live on the East Coast and raise their baby girl, Sophia Rosalinda. The actor figured that he might as well use the time to get back on the stage, and he was eager to work with Margulies.
"Kean was somewhat close to myself in terms of having constantly having questions about existence and relationships and the passionate curiosity you have about the person that you are involved with," Bratt says. "I felt as I read the script that it was honest. I liked that there was a lot of humor in it. As human beings we tend to be pretty ridiculous when we try to be earnest."
Both actors said they enjoyed plumbing the depths of the relationship between Kean and Lissa, stripping themselves down to the rawest, most vulnerable moments, which they had respectively experienced in their own lives with people they had been involved with.
Even so, they're aware that the play runs the danger of being too pyschobabbly. Bratt recalls that when he mentioned this to Simpson, the director told him, "This will be more August Strindberg than Dr. Phil."
"We even called ourselves George and Martha at one point," Margulies says. But the actors also maintained that the play is powered by a profoundly exciting sexuality. "The truth is a real turn-on," she says. "When you're given a magnifying glass into each other, that's going to be the most exciting thing in the world. We talked a lot about what the characters did after they watched these videos of each other, and we figured they went off and [acted] like bunnies."
As admiring of Kean and Lissa as Bratt and Margulies are, they're not quite sure they would embark on the same path to reach their psychological eurekas. "Oh, God, it definitely captures my curiosity, but I wouldn't want to live that way. I abhor reality TV shows. I've got my own life to live, I don't need to watch somebody else's. I'd go nuts if somebody probed all the time the way Lissa does Kean. In a perfect world, the way I am when I'm not with my boyfriend wouldn't stun him. The ultimate goal is to be comfortable with who you are. But to have a camera on me all the time? I'd be worried about hair and makeup!"
Says Bratt: "I find the whole notion horrifying. The only time I have any level of comfort in front of the camera is when I'm playing someone else. That level of scrutiny would be awkward. As honest as you want or try to be with your life partner, there are some things better left unsaid. There's a question that's begged in the play, 'Do you have secrets?' We all do and some of those secrets are best left in your head and not shared."
"You know how they have those disposable cameras?" Margulies adds. "I wish there were disposable video cameras that we could put in a big bowl in the lobby of the theater. And people could take them home with them after the show and spend one night or day taping each other to see, as Lissa might say, what comes up for them."