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Veanne Cox, Time Traveler
In 'Stratagem,' The Actress Is Back Where She Began

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Veanne Cox is having a blast at the Shakespeare Theatre. She plays the miserably married gentlewoman Mrs. Sullen in George Farquhar's 1707 comedy "The Beaux' Stratagem." The new adaptation, begun by Thornton Wilder nearly 70 years ago and completed by Washington playwright Ken Ludwig, runs through Dec. 31.

Cox is a product of the Washington School of Ballet and its apprentice troupe. But, she confides, while dancing for the late Mary Day in the early '80s, she was "secretly studying acting" at Studio Theatre's Conservatory and voice at Catholic University. Day was the reason Cox moved to acting, she says: "The only reason she ever called me out of the corps de ballet was to ask me to act." Now based in New York, Cox has been in musicals ("Caroline, or Change," "Company," "Smile") as well as straight plays ("The Dinner Party," "The Waiting Room," "The Altruists") and says, "I would call myself an actress who tries to dance and sing."

Cox is "really really really happy to be back in Washington," where she has not performed since she was just starting out. As a very young performer, she acted at the Folger, the now-defunct New Playwrights Theatre and in a folk tale, "Bristlelip," by Virginia filmmaker Tom Davenport.

"Beaux" deals with the concept of divorce, which "wasn't a consideration" in Farquhar's age, Cox says. "Only the very wealthy could afford to get one and even then, it took payoffs, politically." Her Mrs. Sullen is "stuck and she somehow survives by her wit. It's the only thing she has left."

Mrs. Sullen's husband is a drunk and a layabout. She warns her sister-in-law, "When a man is courting, he is not himself. He is the oil painting on which the sketch is based." Cox delivers the line layered with regret and drollery.

"I'm enjoying that pathos," she says, as well as "the duality of playing funny and poignant and real. Funny and real is a difficult thing to do, and yet [Mrs. Sullen] lives in that place."

You know a performer has her ego in check when she says, as Cox does, she has to "live up to" her costume (by Robert Perdziola) and the set (by James Kronzer). She also hails her fellow performers, singling out Washington character pros Nancy Robinette (Lady Bountiful), Floyd King, Rick Foucheux and Hugh Nees.

Her agents, of course, want her to do more television and Broadway, not regional theater. But, says Cox, referring to a growing phenomenon on the New York stage, "I don't want to live the rest of my life in New York, waiting to play the roles that movie actresses are getting."

For the record, Cox did live in TV Land for 2 1/2 years in the early 1990s ("what I refer to as my lost years"), and appeared on a "Seinfeld" episode as a heckler. That's what people recognize her for on the street, even now, despite her stage reviews.

But she is sanguine about it. "I have been incredibly lucky in that way. Somehow, I have managed to straddle all the mediums."

Deep Space Scrooge

If you're a Trekker, you may recognize Ford's Theatre's Ebenezer Scrooge.

A decade ago actor Richard Poe spent a long three years away from his beloved New York theater. While he was in Los Angeles, he appeared in the play "Jeffrey," which got him an audition for the "Star Trek" television series.

He jokes that he "didn't cut the mustard as a human being" but was cast as Cardassian officer Gul Evek on several episodes of "The Next Generation," "Deep Space Nine" and "Voyager."

In "A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas," running at Ford's through Dec. 30, Poe plays the all-too-human Scrooge.

The 90-minute production requires the actor to take Scrooge from holiday hater to Christmas lover in a series of fairly short scenes -- ghostly visits, painful memories, self-doubt, emotional turmoil and glorious redemption -- compressed for young attention spans.

"The transformation is the hardest thing to do in this version," Poe says. "To make that cook every night is the challenge." At a recent performance, grade-schoolers giggled at Scrooge's silly nightshirt, but totally bought his change of heart.

Poe finds the message of the play at once Christian and universal. "The idea of closing yourself off" from fellow feeling as Scrooge does, and then "being cracked open again -- that's humanism. In a funny way, this is not a religious play. It's a humanist play . . . about opening yourself to other people," he says.

The actor doesn't like to work outside New York much these days and he hasn't had to. He played the cranky factory boss in the recent revival of "The Pajama Game," starring Harry Connick Jr. (At "some of those matinees," he wryly notes, the women "looked dangerous," referring to Connick's legendary charisma.) Before that, Poe spent a year in the hit reprise of "Fiddler on the Roof" as the constable.

Poe broke his own never-leave-New-York rule to come to Ford's. When he was called about auditioning for the play, he says, "I immediately perked up -- Scrooge!"

Follow Spots

· "Best of the Brits," Washington Shakespeare Company's pay-what-you-can Monday night reading series, continues with "A Night of Harold Pinter" on Nov. 27, "Kafka's Dick" (Dec. 4) by Alan Bennett ("The History Boys," "The Madness of King George III"), "Otherwise Engaged" by Simon Gray (Dec. 11) and Edward Bond's "Bingo" (Dec. 18). No reservations needed. Visit http://www.washingtonshakespeare.org.

· CenterStage in Baltimore will hold a reading Dec. 1 at 8 p.m. of the new play "These Shining Lives" by Melanie Marnich, directed by Leigh Silverman. The fact-based play is about two friends working for the Chicago Radium Dial Co. in the 1920s. Tickets are $5. Call 410-332-0033 or visit http://www.centerstage.org.

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