The poise of Kate Burton

Special to The Times

Kate BURTON may be starring as rich, glamorous Constance Middleton in a revival of “The Constant Wife” -- the sort of drawing-room comedy with a butler who can bring the car around. But offstage she’s an Upper West Side mom, struggling with such mundane tasks as alternate-side-of-the-street parking.

In fact, she was moving the family station wagon in that peculiar New York City ritual on the day she was to open on Broadway in the 1926 Somerset Maugham play when a back spasm suddenly crippled her. At that moment, her husband, Michael Ritchie, artistic director of the Center Theatre Group who’d flown in from Los Angeles for the occasion, reached Burton by cellphone.

“Oh, I’m fine,” the actress told him cheerily. “My back just went out, I can’t get out of the car, and the opening’s in a couple of hours. But other than that everything is just great.”

With a little patience and a dose of pain reliever mixed with Welsh fortitude and opening-night adrenaline, Burton got through the premiere and party. The next day, most reviewers hailed both the Roundabout production and Burton’s turn as the wry aristocratic heroine who knows exactly what to do when she discovers that her doctor husband is having an affair with her best friend.

The recent triumph comes at a turning point in the life and career of the 47-year-old actress. Three years after back-to-back Tony-nominated roles in “Hedda Gabler” and “The Elephant Man,” Burton’s performance in “Constant Wife” cements her position on the small list of New York dramatic stars -- a roster that includes Cherry Jones, Mary-Louise Parker and Laura Linney -- just as she’s in the process of moving to L.A. to join Ritchie with the couple’s children, Morgan, 17, and Charlotte, 7.


The transfer to the Los Feliz area will be complete in fall 2006 after their son graduates from high school.

“My ‘little midlife adventure,’ as a friend of mine calls it,” says Burton of becoming an Angeleno, as she enjoys breakfast at a popular restaurant near her apartment. She’s dressed casually in tan slacks and white blouse, hoop earrings framing a ruddy, unlined face that is more country girl than urban sophisticate.

When her husband informed her that he had been appointed CTG’s artistic director, Burton recalls, she told him, “You’re going to make me move to L.A. at the age of 49?!” Theater there, she noted, is a second cousin to film. And though she may be a stage star, she is a character actress in TV and movies, with modest roles in HBO’s “Empire Falls,” a recurrent role in ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and a cameo as a hallucination in the new Ewan McGregor film, “Stay.”

She adds with a laugh, “But then I thought, ‘This is the best time to move to Los Angeles, my expectations are so low!’ ”

One gathers that those low expectations are both a personality trait and protective ruse that has kept the actress in good stead since she switched her ambition to be a career diplomat (she earned a degree in Russian studies at Brown University) to pursue acting at the Yale School of Drama in the shadow of her famous actor father, Richard Burton. “I knew if I was mediocre, I would just get out,” she recalls. “I always had escape routes for myself.”

Instead, her career gained steam at such a low boil that when her “breakthrough” came, at 44, with the challenging title role in Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler,” the critical consensus was along the lines of “Who knew?”

Burton has long been underrated, says “Constant Wife” director Mark Brokaw, because “vanity plays no part in her makeup; she doesn’t bring attention to herself.” That might seem problematic for a role like that of Constance, a woman who has “the confidence of having all the spotlight on her,” as Brokaw describes her. After all, the part had been assayed in the past by such luminous stage legends as Katharine Cornell, Ethel Barrymore and Ingrid Bergman. In the sole dissenting review, Charles Isherwood of the New York Times bemoaned Burton’s lack of that old-fashioned glamour while giving her high marks in handling the craft, wit and style of a very exacting play that has been described as “Oscar Wilde lite.” The director concedes that it was late in rehearsals before Burton was able to capture Constance’s special allure. But, he adds, “Kate plays the glamour and charisma magnificently because she understands it so well. She knows what it’s like to be in that world. But with Kate, it’s all about the work, it’s not about the flashbulbs going off, and that’s why it’s such a pleasure to collaborate with her.”

Tomboyish esprit

Burton admits she’s always had a problem making “grand entrances” on stage -- which she has been called upon to do in “Hedda” and “Constant Wife.” Although the audience applause on her entrance into the latter makes sense -- given the buildup it is given by the other characters -- it also makes her feel somewhat “idiotic” in the deeper recesses.

Little wonder that she prefers playing the role of the drab, lovelorn Maureen in Martin McDonagh’s “Beauty Queen of Leenane,” which she played on Broadway. Burton’s tomboyish esprit and total lack of artifice is ironic considering she grew up among people who knew exactly how to make an entrance and to play to the flashbulbs.

Indeed, paparazzi cameras were an early memory for Burton. She was 4 when her father became embroiled in the international scandal with Elizabeth Taylor that would lead to their marriage after his divorce from his Welsh sweetheart and Kate’s mother, Sybil Williams.

She spent summers as part of the Taylor-Burton soap opera and the rest of the year with her mother, then a doyenne of an early Manhattan disco, Arthur’s, catering to the rich and famous.

Sybil followed that up with marriage to Jordan Christopher, a rocker-turned-actor 13 years her junior. Kate is still friendly and often in contact with Taylor; Sybil Christopher is a co-founder and artistic director of the prestigious Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, Long Island, where Kate has often worked.

Anchored by what she calls her mother’s core moral values of discipline and integrity, Burton says she took her childhood in stride, seeing its excesses as a cautionary tale. Looking at her unusual pedigree, she’s fond of quoting Gustave Flaubert’s maxim: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

While Burton can convincingly play homicidal women and sweetly conniving wives, she leaves the machinations at the stage door. When she is asked whether she could ever be as understanding about her husband having an affair as Constance is -- on the supposition that they both have fallen out of love for each other -- she shrieks, “No! No! My husband loves me and I love him. As much as ever. This woman is so different from me, but the one thing I think I do have in common with her is my ability to play to the positive.”

In that case, Burton is different from her father, who was given to brooding melancholic moods. Lynn Redgrave, who co-stars in “Constant Wife,” says that although Kate did not inherit that “dark side,” she did absorb a strong work ethic and steely determination, like many children of famous parents. “She’s not easily satisfied, she’s hard on herself,” says Redgrave, herself a scion of an acting dynasty. “But unless she’s acting -- and I don’t think she is -- Kate really has a very cheerful view of life. What you see is what you get, she doesn’t have a hidden agenda.”

Whatever Burton’s private reservations about moving to California -- she describes Morgan as happy, Charlotte as “skittish” about leaving friends -- she professes to be thrilled, as long as she can retain a toehold in East Coast theater. In fact, next spring she will appear in the world premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s “The Water’s Edge” at New York’s Second Stage. That summer, she plans to co-star with son Morgan in a revival of “The Corn Is Green” at Boston’s Huntington Theatre.

“I love Los Angeles. I love hiking and skiing and outdoors, and we live right in back of Griffith Park. Elizabeth [Taylor], Jane Kaczmarek, Jean Guest [Christopher Guest’s mother] and Virginia McDowall, Roddy’s sister, are longtime friends,” she says. “My role model is my friend Blythe Danner, who was able to come back to New York every couple of years to do a play and had homes in New York and L.A. If we can pull it off financially, if Morgan goes to UC, I think we’ll be able to keep our apartment.”

Burton also sees an opportunity to do more West Coast theater, noting that her appearances -- in “Jake’s Women” (Ahmanson at the Doolittle Theatre), “Wild Honey” (Ahmanson) and “Arcadia” (Mark Taper Forum) " -- are numbered among the best experiences of her career.

“The thing about L.A. audiences is that they’ve made a serious commitment to attend the theater. It’s not easy, it’s not like New York,” she says. “And you can sense that.”

Asked if she’s worried about charges of nepotism should she be cast in a CTG production, she rolls her eyes. “That’s been around since I started: ‘Oh, she’s only getting that job because she’s Richard Burton’s daughter.’ I’ve always said that getting through the door was made easier but staying in the room was harder.”

As Mrs. Ritchie

For now, she sees her role to be “as nurturing and supportive” a wife to her husband of 20 years as he takes on this new high-profile, high-pressured position. The couple met in 1982 when Burton auditioned for a role in a revival of “Present Laughter” at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre. Ritchie, then the theater’s stage manager, read with her. She got the role -- and a husband.

“Michael’s excited about this challenge and continues to be,” she says, ever the diplomat in discussing the hard choices he has had to make in his first year at CTG. “I just want him to come home to a relaxing environment at the end of the day.”

As for the possibility of getting more involved in the Hollywood social whirl of which she had a front-row seat as part of the Burton-Taylor entourage, she says she much prefers the downtown political scene. The Ritchies are friendly with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and his wife, Corina, and Burton looks forward to working to make the city’s center even more vibrant.

And though she hopes there will be more film and TV roles, she wouldn’t mind someday taking courses in directing at the American Film Institute.

“I’ve always been fascinated with what goes on behind the camera, even more so than in front of it. I always felt at home on a sound stage, a little kid hanging around my father’s sets,” Burton says. “And let’s face it, how much work can be there be for an actress in her late 40s, early 50s, who’s never had a face lift?”

But then she takes a bite of her Mamma Bear special -- porridge with raisins -- and adds: “But then, I never would have thought that my career would take off as it has in the last couple of years. Who knew?”