Jessica Hecht: After L.A.

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Jessica Hecht is in the peculiar position of having been singled out for praise by New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley. Indeed, her performance as Louise, Quentin's beleaguered wife in Arthur Miller's "After the Fall," was the only aspect of the Roundabout revival that Brantley had any use for. The production bowed on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre, Thurs., July 29.

Hecht is dismissive: "You have to keep this in perspective. Brantley liked me and John Simon didn't like me. John Simon never likes me. He always says, 'Why would anyone want to look at her?'"

Hecht, a 30-something Bloomfield, Conn. native, is stunningly straightforward. But then, this is a performer who asserts with good cheer, "There are many days I know I could walk away from acting altogether."

Her ultimate goal has always been: "To have a life!"

Her next ideal project: "To spend more time with my children."

Nonetheless, her performance in "After the Fall" is memorable. Miller's autobiographical play centers on his tormented marriage to Marilyn Monroe (here dubbed Maggie and played by Carla Gugino), while considering his earlier disintegrating relationship with his first wife (Hecht) and other close friends. The play evokes a world without morality, where everyone betrays everyone else and no one connects. Miller's onstage alter ego, Quentin, is played by Peter Krause.

"This play is also about culpability and guilt and ownership of that guilt," observes the thoughtful and soft-spoken Hecht during a phone interview. "But, interestingly, Louise is the only character in the play who has done nothing wrong, although she feels guilt from moment to moment. She realizes that she is pushing Quentin away.

"Louise is a deeply unrealized person, emotionally speaking," Hecht continues. "Her challenge is to get her husband to communicate from a place of honesty. It's not that she wants his remorse. She adores him. And that's what I have to remember -- that's my challenge -- as the actor.

"There's an added difficulty because the timeline is never revealed. You're introduced to these characters at an arduous moment. But you're not told how long they've been together. There's a repetitive way in which they communicate that stems from long years of marriage."

In preparation for the role, Hecht read Arthur Miller's memoir, "Timebends," talked with Miller in depth, and interviewed Miller's granddaughter Katy to learn about the real Louise.

"After her marriage to Miller fell apart, she never dated again," Hecht recalls. "I would like to have thought she moved on. Her life makes me sad."

One of the major tasks in playing Louise is "that you cannot implode with sadness," says Hecht. "Director Michael Mayer pointed out that Quentin is the central character who is constantly being bombarded, which means that my actions cannot be all that nuanced."

Hecht last appeared on Broadway in Alfred Uhry's "The Last Night of Ballyhoo." Off-Broadway, she has been seen at the Public and the Vineyard, among other venues, and she boasts regional credits at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and Bay Street Theatre, to name two. But perhaps she is best known for her television roles in "Friends," "The Single Guy," and "Seinfeld," in addition to her guest shots on a host of television programs. Upcoming film appearances include "The Forgotten," with Julianne Moore, and "Stay," with Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts.

Unlike Hecht's other characters, "Louise embodies more power and rage," Hecht remarks. "Like them, she is less than appealing and more than a little clumsy. I find it interesting to see how characters attempt to cover their clumsiness."

That said, Louise poses two serious stumbling blocks to a contemporary actress, Hecht acknowledges. For starters, there are Louise's endless references to psychoanalysis -- specifically, the psychoanalysis she is undergoing. Second, and perhaps even more daunting, is Louise's whiny tone. She is one needy woman and lets her husband know it.

"Yes, it is dated," Hecht concedes. "There is no doubt that women's styles have changed. But I'm not sure their feelings have. The issues remain the same. As for Louise's psychoanalysis and her unquestioning belief in it -- of course it was formulaic, and today we find it amusing. But back then, you have to remember, only a handful of people were in therapy. Now everyone is in therapy and therefore less self-conscious about it.

"What's interesting about Louise," Hecht suggests, "is that she uses her psychoanalysis as a tool and weapon. She feels elevated because of it. Talking so much about psychoanalysis might be a challenge to me, but I come from a family of therapists, so it's all very familiar. My stepfather is a psychiatrist, my mom is a psychotherapist, and my sister is a psychiatrist."

Hecht's dad, however, is a physicist.

Not L.A. Bound

Hecht earned her undergraduate degree from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied with Stella Adler. Hecht credits Adler with instilling in her "a respect for the tremendous history behind acting and the hard work that's involved."

To this day, Hecht finds working with "older actors at the end of their careers inspiring. They make you appreciate the fact that a career in theatre is a lifelong journey. It's not about momentary success. One of the reasons I like working so much more in New York than L.A. is the chance to work with older actors who have perfected their craft. Generally, actors are much younger in L.A. and, for the most part, they're not interested in craft. In Los Angeles, you're rated by how many people have seen you the night before in a television show."

Regardless, Hecht has enjoyed a career in Los Angeles, most notably in her recurring "Friends" role as Susan, a lesbian, one of the few gay characters on TV at that time. Starring on television was never her goal, Hecht insists. In fact, the only reason she relocated to Los Angeles was because she was having no luck making headway in New York.

"I had just come back to New York from a year-and-a-half national tour of 'Heidi Chronicles' and I thought I'd be getting work. I wasn't. I was also told by some New York theatre insiders that there was no place for me in L.A., either. As it turned out, I proved them wrong.

"Of course, I arrived in L.A. at just the right moment," Hecht continues. "Suddenly, quirky characters were showing up on TV. When I say quirky, I'm not talking about someone with a funny voice. It was subtler than that. Still, I realized quickly that I didn't look like other L.A. actors and I was never going to be one of them."

Hecht maintains that the best creative times she has had have been "acting in offbeat works downtown, where I had to mine my own resources to find something real and believable within very strange material."

Hecht, who is married to TV and film director Adam Bernstein and, as noted, the mother of two youngsters, emphasizes, "Having kids gives you an enormous perspective. It informs your ambitions. At this point in my life, my ambition is to do interesting work with interesting people."