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The White Stuff

Date: Apr 22, 2008


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"Please don't use the Fraggle Rock photo!" Julie White pleads, referring to a particularly bug-eyed picture which The New York Times has been running, showing her in character in Liz Flahive's new comedy/drama From Up Here (at Manhattan Theatre Center's City Center through June 8).

As unflattering as it looks, the so-called "Fraggle Rock" moment is true to the character of Grace, an average mom who's comparing her recent nervous breakdown to the unpredictably vicious behavior of certain dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Its combination of humor and horror is also very true to White's approach.

"If I had a hallmark, it is that I'm going to find the comedy in any situation, no matter how gruesome," says White, who won a Tony for last season's The Little Dog Laughed. The challenge for Grace is that her son, a quiet teen, has been suspended for threatening violence at school. As the real-life mom of a college-age girl, White knows the ache of parenting all too well.

"Your biggest nightmare as a parent is that somehow your kid goes off the rails," White says. "To watch your children suffer in any way is almost unbearable. And you try to fix it so much."

The part of Grace seems like a departure for White, at least from a character like Diane, the hard-edged, rapier-witted agent in Douglas Carter Beane's Little Dog. But as she points out, she's played everyday gals almost as often as she's played sass-spouters.

"I seem to swing from very normal, everyday people to ball-busting bitches," White says with a laugh. "I don't know what that says about my personality. But they're all fun. What I haven't had the chance to play very often is a mother--Theresa Rebeck gave me an offstage kid in Bad Dates, but it's really nice to play a mom, since I am a mom, and have been one for most of my adult life."

While White raves about her young co-stars--Tobias Segal plays her troubled son and Aya Cash her promiscuous daughter--she especially appreciates working with a relatively large cast of eight.

"I haven't been in a cast this large for so long," White marvels. "I did Barbara's Wedding, and it was just me and John Pankow. Little Dog had just four of us. This feels like a cast of thousands!"

In terms of cast size, the worst was Rebeck's Bad Dates.

"That was just me, which was so depressing--there was nobody to go out with afterwards," White says.

She compensated by bringing her little dog, Lulu, who kept her company backstage. And despite the comforting cast size of From Up Here, White brings Lulu to matinees. She's a popular canine, White says: When Lulu missed a recent matinee, her colleagues were crestfallen. "They all said, 'Where's Lulu? That's who we really want to see.' Lulu totally needs her own show."

White's versatility may have something to do with her background: Born in San Diego and raised mostly in Austin, TX, she has divided her acting career between Los Angeles and New York. So she still has a faint Texas twang, but she also has both the sharp wits of a New Yorker and the laidback ease of a Californian.

"I've always equated acting with surfing--this sounds so squirrely!--but if it's a good play, you just ride it like a wave." So Julie White has spent time on a surfboard? "No, I'm deathly afraid of the water, so I'm just guessing. But I am fascinated by Laird Hamilton and all those surfing movies. It seems that surfers get addicted to that rush they get, and I just think, 'Dude, that what it's like with acting, too.' "

Addicted or not, she loves living in Flahive's play, as harrowing as it can be emotionally.

"The play is just so compassionate about all its characters," White says. "I wouldn't have done it if the mother was just terrible and it was all her fault. It's really about: How do you keep going when life goes off the rails a little bit?

"I hate to sound like a Hallmark card, but a woman got up at a talkback the other day and said, 'It all boils down to four little letters: L-O-V-E.' "

Click here for more information about From Up Here.