Jean Smart is back in New York walking, enjoying the sidewalk jostling and streetlife, and going to as many plays as possible. "There's fabulous theater in Los Angeles," says the actress, "but in New York everything is more accessible, which makes it more fun." To also be working for the first time in two years onstage has doubled the fun.

Smart's role of Nessa in the new comedy Fit to Be Tied by Nicky Silver, (The Food Chain, Pterodactyls), at Playwrights Horizon through November 3, 1996, seems perfect for this actress with the deft ability to alternate regularly between comedy and drama. Nessa is verbal, flamboyant, and self-dramatizing -- definitions of Smart's character in the sitcom "Designing Women," which ran four seasons, and last season's High Society. "She's also a lunatic," laughs Smart, "which I'll take as a compliment. When they offered it to me, I was flattered and insulted. Nessa's 46! Not even close! But she looks good from so many nips and tucks."

Smart feels her scenery-chewing Ellie in High Society, a hard-drinking, hard living best-selling author, helped her get the part. "I said, `It's Ellie ten years later with a grown son -- who just happens to be gay -- and a multimillionaire!' Nessa, after a divorce and remarriage, has been cut off and is trying to cut back in."

Though best known for her TV work, Smart paid her theatrical dues on graduation from the University of Washington in Seattle working in plays throughout the Northwest and Alaska. She never thought of herself as a comedienne but knew she was funny. "The roles I tended to play were the great villainesses in literature."

Then came the siren call to go to New York. "I'm ashamed I didn't do much struggling," said Smart. "I arrived in January 1980, settled in my sublet and picked up the trades. There was a showcase that sounded like it had great women's roles. It was also nearby and I could find it without getting lost. I was cast in the lead." That was Lil in Last Summer at Bluefish Cove by the late Jane Chambers, a comic love story of eight lesbians at a Long Island beach colony which went on to a respectable Off- Broadway run. "We called it `The Girls in the Sand,' since it was sorta like The Boys in the Band.

Lil was a footloose, charming tomboy who meets the love of her life, a straight woman. To complicate things more, she's dying of cancer. It got me a lot of attention (in New York and Los Angeles), my agent, and my first Broadway role."

In 1981's Piaf, starring Jane Lapotaire and Zoe Wanamaker, Smart played a small but important part loosely based on Marlene Dietrich. Then she was offered a musical role, Vera Simpson in a revival of Pal Joey, but it was bad timing. "I was on my was to Los Angeles," explained Smart. "I figured it was time to do something on camera and see what that was all about."

It may have been wonderful, but as Smart discovered, it wasn't New York, and it wasn't New York theater. But she's back now, and it's a welcome return.


Key Subjects: 
Jean Smart, Fit To Be Tied; Nicky Silver
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
November 1996