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Elbrick House Xanthe Elbrick played a pair of lads in "Coram Boy." As Vivie in "Mrs. Warren's Profession," she's still wearing the pants.
The imported epic Coram Boy may have closed precipitously on Broadway after just 30 performances, but its breakout star, Xanthe Elbrick, is having a very good year, thank you. Nominated for a Tony in May for the dual role of a pair of precocious, musically talented boys, the British-American actress was nominated for a Tony alongside such veterans as Jennifer Ehle, Dana Ivey, Coram co-star Jan Maxwell and Martha Plimpton--not bad for a 28-year-old in her first year out of the New School's MFA acting program.

"I've been embraced so quickly by the Broadway community; it's been a very friendly experience," effuses Elbrick, reached in Stockbridge, Mass., where she's currently starring as Vivie in the Berkshire Theatre Festival's new production of Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession.

Certainly, a Tony nomination does make a difference.

"The experience is very different in the audition room now," reports Elbrick. "Now I get to work on scenes with the casting director or the director, as opposed to having a two-minute moment to come in and prove everything. They trust the process a lot more, I guess because they've seen or heard that the results at the end work. They give me a real look now."

Giving Elbrick a look is certainly no chore: A striking brunette with a robust voice that's landed her several audiobook gigs, she has often been cast in the parts of strong, willful women (that is, when she's not playing boys). These would include the fierce, independent Vivie Warren, Shaw's hardheaded young proto-feminist, who is initially shocked to learn that her mother's profession--which has financed Vivie's education and what social advantages she possesses--is indeed the famous "oldest" one.

"She is kind of an image of Shaw himself," Elbrick says of Vivie. "She's a very left-brained thinker, which is so unusual--there are not that many women out there like that. It's a predominantly male kind of thinking, very pragmatic and analytical, as opposed to emotionally led, which is more her mother's drive. The two of them set off each other is this brilliant collision of two very different images of women."

Though she says that the short hair left over from her Coram Boy chop has nabbed her some film and TV auditions for Matrix-type action heroines, Elbrick has no question about which kind of woman she is.

"It's interesting, I've always been placed in strong women roles, but I'm not like that in my life," Elbrick says. She waxes philosophical about it: "Whenever you're cast, you always learn something more about how the world perceives you. I guess that's the brilliance and the curse of being an actor. One has a continuous education; I learn something new about myself every time I do a role."

She has already learned plenty about her craft, having studied both at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and at the Actors Studio-affiliated New School in NYC. In short, she has both British and American techniques covered, and she's found both handy in Mrs. Warren's Profession.

"When we first approached it, my British training is what I relied on more," Elbrick explains. "But as soon as I had a good understanding of the text, then I used my secondary training. Vivie has become a lot more real; before she was a representative of a point of view, and now she's a character. On the page, she has no emotional life; she is a bit stunted in that way, as a result of having been neglected as a child. But I feel like I've found her inner place. It's not given in the text, particularly, and that's where my Actors Studio training really comes in."

And even if Elbrick were ever tempted to coast on mere facility with the language, she says that her co-star Lisa Banes (Rumors, Arcadia, High Society), who plays the title role, wouldn't let her.

"She's a huge risk taker," Elbrick raves about Banes. "As a young actor delving into the world of Shaw for the first time, I was very intimidated. And Lisa immediately, on the first day of rehearsal, gave me permission to dive even deeper into it. It's impossible not to be in the moment with her.

"At a talkback the other night, one audience member who'd also been to the opening told me, 'You didn't seem as upset tonight as you did that night.' And it does change; a lot depends on what I get from Lisa. She's great to work off that way."

After the sprawl and sweep of her last show, Elbrick says, "It's nice to have an intimate experience. Coram Boy was so epic. And the cast didn't all get to know each other very well--partly because the show closed so early. We thought we'd have a lot more time to get to know each other."

The theatre world is just getting to know Xanthe Elbrick, and as first impressions go, she's done--as the Brit in her might say--brilliantly.

Mrs. Warren's Profession runs through Sept. 1 at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. More information here.