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‘Theater is as vital here as anywhere’

Special to The Times

Ed Harris, his familiar all-American face several days unshaven, is reflecting on his view of theater in Los Angeles. Seated at a weathered patio table outside his ranch-style home in the hills of Malibu on a recent afternoon, the thinking man’s Oklahoman, who played John Glenn in “The Right Stuff” 24 years ago but before that had been in 99-seat theaters all over town, can remember acting in the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, doing “True West” at South Coast Repertory and the squabbles that sank the Los Angeles Actors Theatre (where he and his wife, Amy Madigan, were ensemble members).

“Theater is as vital here as anywhere, but because it’s so spread out, you don’t get that intense energy that you do in New York. But everybody knows that. You can do something here and it just goes out in the Pacific Ocean,” he says, idly gesturing toward the yawning blue horizon. He speaks this show business truth as impassively as if acknowledging the fire danger of the rainless chaparral all around him.

For the first time since becoming a movie star in the 1980s, Harris will be onstage again in Los Angeles this weekend, however briefly, reprising the acclaimed performance he gave in Neil LaBute’s instantly notorious one-man play “Wrecks” last fall at the Public Theater in Manhattan. Again directed by LaBute, Harris will be doing the play once Friday night and twice Saturday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City as a benefit for the Archer School for Girls, where his daughter, Lily, is a student.

Set at a funeral parlor where its only character, Edward Carr, a chatty Midwestern businessman, is mourning the loss of Mary Jo, his wife of 30 years, “Wrecks” is a 70-minute monologue of passion, humor and surprise that elicited as much praise for Harris’ spellbinding narration as it did disparagement for LaBute’s subversive text.

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Harris says he did not read the New York reviews. “As a rule, I don’t read reviews because it’s one person’s opinion, and while you’re in the midst of doing a play, it’s not helpful. There are certain things that L.A. critics said of theater I did in ’77 that are still in my head -- that aren’t necessarily positive things.”

‘He’s fearless’

An easy laugh follows this recollection. It’s an Ed Harris moment. Nominated four times for Academy Awards (“Apollo 13,” “The Truman Show,” “Pollock” and “The Hours”), in person Harris, 56, doesn’t appear to take himself or his success too seriously.

“I like the play a lot, so I don’t really know what the criticisms of it are,” he says. “Maybe that it’s manipulative? I don’t even know if the Archer people know what it’s about, to tell you the truth. To me, this is not a typical LaBute piece. It’s about love. It’s a love story.”

“Wrecks” may be a love story, but it invokes comparison to Sophocles more than to Nora Ephron.

As he unfurls his tale of obsession, ecstasy and anger while puffing apologetically on cigarettes, Harris’ character slyly shares details of a life reclaimed from a dismal boyhood as an orphan -- a life made whole by his blissful union with Mary Jo, 15 years his senior and now an apparent cancer victim of his secondhand smoke.

“It’s not like doing Mark Twain or FDR,” Harris says, “and it’s not a performance piece where someone is telling his own life story and playing different characters. It’s just about my relationship and my life with this person, and Mary Jo is a very specific person that I’ve had a history with for 30 years.”

LaBute, who began in the relative obscurity of the theater but earned a national reputation as a sexual provocateur, misogynist and all-around troublemaker for his screenplays “In the Company of Men” and “Your Friends and Neighbors” in the late ‘90s, did not write “Wrecks” with Harris in mind but was more than pleased to learn from a casting director that the actor had read it and wanted to do it.

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“Now it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it,” the playwright says, “but it was luck, really. Timing. His wife was out of town working, and he was available. As much success as he’s had, that he still wanted to challenge himself with this. He’s fearless.”

“I didn’t know Neil at all; it was sent to me,” Harris says. “I liked the idea it was a one-man thing. It was a nice way to get back in the theater. It’s really a fun piece to do, especially at the Public because the staging was a three-quarter-round deal, very intimate. So basically you just come out and talk to the people about this woman in your life.”

Harris had not done a play in New York in 10 years, not since Ronald Harwood’s “Taking Sides” in 1996. In 1983, the same year “The Right Stuff” put him on the fast track in Hollywood, he won a Village Voice Obie Award playing the perverse cowboy Eddie in Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love,” a role he originated at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco.

An actor able to embody the square-jawed heroism of astronaut Glenn one week and the impish malevolence of a Sam Shepard wrangler the next is not an ordinary actor, to be sure, and New Jersey-born Harris has proved that over and over in the course of his unusual career, which began on the stage at the University of Oklahoma. Amid his preparation for “Wrecks,” he is filming the Jerry Bruckheimer sequel to “National Treasure,” with Nicolas Cage, Helen Mirren and Jon Voight. “It’s kind of fun,” he says, “but it’s popcorn time.”

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He wishes more people had seen last year’s “Copying Beethoven,” an independent film in which he portrayed the great composer and which he places on the list of his most undervalued movies, a list that also includes “Jacknife” (1989), the Vietnam drama made with Robert De Niro, and “Just Cause” (1995), in which he played a psychotic killer in a cast that included Sean Connery and Laurence Fishburne.

About returning to “Wrecks,” he says, “The play is still very vivid in me. It’s a pretty long thing to keep learned. So regardless of what I’m doing, every couple days I go through it in my head and try to keep it fresh. I don’t think it will be repetitive. It will be alive in its own way. I’m very curious to see how. It depends on the audience because you’re sharing it with them. It depends on the energy you’re getting back.”

LaBute can remember when an audience in Ireland, where the play premiered at a festival in Cork, was not giving Harris back the right kind of energy. “I could feel him taking offense at people for not taking the journey with him,” the playwright says. “They found it offensive that I made him so likable,” before a certain shocking revelation casts Edward in a new light. “We’re so used to good triumphing over evil,” LaBute says, indicating (as if necessary) that he’s bored with that traditional scenario.

“I’m someone who’s always looking for the other side of the story,” says LaBute, who has a new play, “In a Dark, Dark House,” opening off-Broadway next week.

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“In terms of morality,” Harris says, “I like what he says at the end when he says, ‘Love is a pretty special creature no matter what form it comes in’ -- I like that statement. Yes, it’s a little bizarre, I don’t want to get into details because there are people who don’t know the play.”

Itching for the stage

Harris says he and LaBute would like to do “Wrecks” in an extended run here, but the demands of his filmmaking schedule thus far have interfered. “I know Neil would like to do it here and in London, and at some point he’s going to get another guy to do it. But I said, ‘Let me know first because I think it’s my piece.’ I’m very protective of it.”

Harris also wants to act at the Music Center under the Michael Ritchie regime but again brings up the challenge of geography. “I’d love to do something downtown, but one of the problems of doing theater here, especially downtown, is that the curtain is at 8 and you want to be there an hour ahead of time and you’re going to do this six nights a week, and I can think of better ways to spend my time than to get in my car and try to get there. It’s a pain. If I had a helicopter, I guess, maybe. Or a motorcycle.”

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‘Wrecks’

Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday

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Ends: Saturday

Price: $65 and $110

Contact: (213) 628-2772, www.archer.org


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