In her TV and stage career, Jean Smart has alternated regularly between comedy and drama, but her star turn in "a role to die for," as flamboyant stage star Lorraine Sheldon in The Man Who Came To Dinner, certainly proves she was born to play comedy. The Roundabout Theatre Company production of the classic 1939 Kaufman and Hart play, headlining Nathan Lane and directed by Jerry Zaks, debuts their new home, the restored Selwyn Theater, now the American Airlines Theater, on New 42nd Street.

Though best known for her work on the sitcom "Designing Women," still popular in syndication, and numerous TV movies and miniseries, Smart is a theater veteran and "return to my roots as often as I can." In May, Smart co-starred in the Los Angeles Reprise! series staging of Burt Bacharach, Hal David and Neil Simon's Promises, Promises. Now, thanks to a twist of fate (Christine Baranski's eschewing Dinner for a TV series) she's back on Broadway.

"I was in the right place at the right time," says Smart. "When my agent got the call about Dinner, I was here auditioning for the revival of Follies, which is still on my list of want-to-dos, and preparing to audition for Annie Get Your Gun." But motherhood duties came first. As Dinner rehearsals were starting, "I had to miss a few days because of my son's school play in California. I wanted to be supportive, but I was also working behind the scenes on costumes." Smart said she regretted having to come to Dinner late but she felt it important to fulfill her obligations and not let her ten-year-old son down.

When she arrived for rehearsals, she said, "My first thought was, 'I've got to be on my toes! This is an amazing group of actors: Harriet Harris, Lewis J. Stadlen, Byron Jennings.' I've always been a huge fan of Nathan's and he's a joy to work with. I had seen plays Jerry directed, but he's even more remarkable and supportive than I had heard. He has a special gift for staging comedy. I soon found that if I put myself in his hands, he'd take me where I needed to go. He knows what he's doing, plus he makes it fun."

While at Dinner in Roundabout's new theater, Smart's onscreen in Disney's "The Kid," starring Bruce Willis. Her portrayal of a bitter mother in last year's "Guinevere," which starred Stephen Rhea, won her an Independent Spirit Award supporting actress nomination. Three seasons ago, she was at Playwrights Horizons in Jon Robin Baitz's The End of the Day and Nicky Silver's Fit To Be Tied.

Smart paid her theatrical dues on graduation from the University of Washington in Seattle, working the regionals throughout the Northwest and Alaska. "I never thought of myself as a comedienne," she said, "but I knew I was funny. The roles I tended to play were the great villainesses in literature, and I always had fun with them."
When theater's siren call drew her to New York, she made her Off-Broadway debut in Jane Chambers' Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, garnering critical praise and a Drama Desk nomination (and later a Los Angeles Drama Critics Award). "I was blessed that the play got me a lot of attention and helped me land an agent and my first Broadway role."

In 1979's Piaf, Smart played a small but important part loosely based on Marlene Dietrich (which she repeated in the TV adaptation). Then she was offered a musical role, Vera Simpson in a revival of Pal Joey. "It was bad timing," explained Smart. "I was on my way to Los Angeles and figured it was time to do something on camera and see what that was all about."
In 1983, after a short-lived sitcom, "casting directors just decided I was funny. When that happens, you usually get pigeonholed, but I was fortunate. I got to move back and forth from comedy to drama in TV movies (serial killer Aileen Wournos in "Overkill"), miniseries (such as "Scarlett"), movies ("The Brady Bunch"), theater (Marvin's Room in L.A.) and guesting on hit sitcoms ("Seinfeld" and "Frasier").

"But," Smart adds, "crisscrossing can be a problem. If Hollywood can't classify you easily, it's harder for them to cast you. It takes effort to think of you in broader terms. I can't complain because I work steadily as a leading lady and character actress. Comedy's fun, and drama is good because it allows me counterbalance. I always thought rising to the challenge was my job as an actress. It's the aspect I love most about theater."

The biggest difference between theater and TV and film "is that the hours aren't as long, but because of the physical energy, rehearsals and performing, it's more demanding. However, the payoff's greater and immediate. Since it's what I started out doing, it feels like home. In TV and film, you're at the mercy of the cinematographer and editor. They can make a performance as easily as they can break one. I just wish stage actors made a better living!"

Key Subjects: 
Jean Smart, The Man Who Came To Dinner, sitcoms
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).
July 2000