Steven Culp, whom you might recognize from his stint as the late Rex Van De Kamp, husband of Martha Stewart-wannabe Brie Van De Kamp on ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” doesn’t want me to tell you much about the play he’s in at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.
The play is Blackbird by British playwright David Harrower, and it is indeed an intensely tricky piece of work.
“I’d prefer it if audiences came in cold and just let the play unfold,” Culp says after a day of rehearsals.
Yes, that would be nice, but Blackbird definitely is not for everyone. Like David Mamet’s Oleanna, a two-person drama about power shifts in a teacher-student/male-female relationships, Harrower’s play is about a man and a woman with a startling relationship.
About 15 years prior to the start of the play, Ray (Culp’s character) had a relationship with Una (played in this production by Jessi Campbell). But here’s the thing: At the time of their relationship, Ray was 40 and Jessi was 12.
Playwright Harrower says of the play, which also opened in New York earlier this month: “I don’t believe this is a play about pedophilia. And I didn’t want it to be. Yes, it discusses an illegal, under-age relationship, and in most people’s minds, the man would be termed a pedophile. … What interested me is how people then go on to deal with the consequences of their actions and desires, how they justify or explain to themselves the reasons for what they did.”
Culp, 51, doesn’t really want to address the issues in the play, but he will say that Harrower’s language, which can be sparse and full of pauses, reminds him of Mamet, Pinter and Albee.
“This language has to express the inexpressible,” Culp says. “What happens in the play involves moving beyond what these characters have been told by society, by therapists, by whomever. It’s full of the rawness of the inexplicable and the unknowable mysteries of the human heart. These are two human beings with a complexity of feelings for one another.”
Culp also sees the play as a “classic cathartic work full of pity and terror.”
Enough about the play he needs to promote but doesn’t really want to talk about. With his ongoing success in television — in addition to “Housewives” he was on “The West Wing,” “CSI” and “Star Trek: Enterprise” — Culp really didn’t need to go back to the theater.
But a fluke of scheduling, involving his new ABC series “Traveler,” which has delayed its premiere so as not to compete with “American Idol,” left him with time on his hands. He wanted a project, a theater project, to be specific, and it had to fit into his time frame.
Having worked at ACT about 15 years ago as Joe Pitt in Angels in America, Culp decided to check out the company’s Web site. He saw it had “Blackbird” on the schedule. Though he didn’t really know anything about the play, he called the casting director anyway.
“They sent me the script,” he recalls. “I read it and thought, `Oh, my God.’ I didn’t know if it was something for me, but then I couldn’t get it out of my head. My goal was to find something that took everything I had and more. The moral is: Careful what you wish for.”
The father of 5 1/2-year-old twins, Culp was hesitant to leave his family in Los Angeles, but he says he was convinced this was the best possible time for a theatrical challenge.
“Rehearsal has been fruitful,” Culp says. “Loretta (Greco, the director) has been great. I’m fully engaged.”
Culp pauses and offers a smile. “This kind of experience invigorates me,” he says. “But it’ll age me.”
Blackbird continues through May 27 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17.50-$73.50. Call (415) 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.
Because of the play’s controversial nature, there will be audience discussions following each performance. There will also be two “Theater on the Couch” sessions in which members of the San Francisco Foundation for Psychoanalysis discuss the psychological aspects of the play after the shows on May 4, 6 (matinee) and 12.