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Face to Face : Mark Linn-Baker Times Two - Taking on Feydeau's "Flea"

"Farce is a much-maligned form. It's easy to do badly and therefore audiences may have a negative feeling about it," says Mark Linn-Baker, starring in--yes, a farce--George Feydeau's "A Flea in Her Ear." Under the direction of Bill Irwin, the Broadway production opened at the Roundabout Theatre Company, March 5.

"Many people mistakenly think of farce as broad low comedy," Linn-Baker continues."In fact, it's polished high comedy." He explains the distinction. "In low comedy, a character gets hit in the head and you don't really believe it. In farce, he's hit in the head, but he must be hit in the head. The character requires it.

"Farce needs to look effortless. You run around the theatre, rip off one costume, put on another, re-do your hair, all in record-breaking time, and appear ca-a-a-lm." His mouth turns up in a deliberate, bland clown-mask smile.

In "A Flea in Her Ear," a frothy early 20th-century French piece about real and imagined infidelity--with lots of Bill Irwinian door-slamming run amok--Linn-Baker plays both Victor Chandebise and Dodo. The former is an arrogant, self-possessed member of the landed gentry. Dodo, in contrast, is a self-effacing, obsequious hotel clerk who expects to get beaten and freqently does.

Best known for his seven-year stint as the beleaguered Larry Appleton on ABC's sitcom "Perfect Strangers," Linn-Baker is also a familiar presence on Broadway. Most recently he appeared as Hysterium in "Forum," and earlier he was the demented head writer in Neil Simon's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor." Linn-Baker frequently plays characters that are comically put upon, and his forte is his physicality on stage. "I'm attracted to roles that involve sweat and endurance," the 40-something St. Louis native chortles, adding that preparation entails daily workouts. "I work out anyway. Age, you know. Hmmm " Hearty laugh.

That hearty laugh--it erupts and comes to an end with equal suddenness--is his signature. He is forthright, yet oddly guarded. We meet at the midtown office of New York Stage and Film (NYSF), a company Linn-Baker co-founded 12 years ago. He now serves as its co-director. NYSF is a summer program, co-sponsored by Vassar College and housed on its lush Poughkeepsie campus. "We wanted a place where we could develop new work less expensively than in New York and outside the eyes of the critics," says Linn-Baker, whose sights are now set on the upcoming season. Still, he's eager to talk about special challenges he faces in the Feydeau farce. "Finding the farcical style and making it work have to be based in the character's truth. At the same time, the behavior has to be extreme. The danger is in losing that connection. Then what you're left with is either a grounded performance or just extreme behavior. And neither satisfies the play."

Dual roles raise additional issues. "The goal is to find those innate traits in each character that are playable, plausible, and funny," says Linn-Baker. "The next step is choosing those characteristics in each man that are diametrically opposed. I usually start with a physical image, but that comes from a visceral understanding of what I'm trying to accomplish."

An Early Start

Brought up in Wethersfield, Conn., the son of a radio writer, Linn-Baker was introduced to theatre at an early age. "My parents were always involved in community theatre and I'd do the tech work and play the child," he chortles, adding that his father launched a color-blind community-based theatre company in the '60s, decades before nontraditional casting had become the order of the day. Linn-Baker majored in theatre at Yale University and then went on to earn his MFA from the Yale School of Drama.

He was one of the fortunate few, well on his way even before he graduated. "I was still in school when I appeared in 'All's Well That Ends Well,' with the New York Shakespeare Festival in the park. I got a lot of good press and agents pursued me," he says matter-of-factly. In the 20-plus years since, he has worked steadily--although, curiously, despite the agents and his solid reputation, he still auditions for every part he has ever gotten. "And I have no problem with that."

Clearly, his major break was his seven-year stint on the hit TV sitcom "Perfect Strangers." He comments, "You can't get that kind of exposure anywhere else. And it was a great deal of fun. Lots of physical comedy. Of course, I'd be interested in doing a TV series again!"

Linn-Baker defines himself as an actor, but he wears a director's hat from time to time. As noted, he is the co-founder/co-director of NYSF. This summer, He will be directing a NYSF musical: Willie and Rob Reale's "Once Around the City." "It's set in New York City in the early '80s and deals with real estate barons and homeless shelters and it's an old-fashioned love story," says Linn-Baker. "The major challenge in directing a musical is making sure the shape of the piece works. Unlike most plays, there is no set form to a musical. It's an unknown beast. 'Phantom' is not the same as 'Titanic.' And there are so many elements a director has to address: book, song, and movement. I'm hoping we'll be able to bring it to an Off-Broadway theatre this fall." Linn-Baker's wife, Adrianne Lobel, will be designing the set. (Her work can also be seen in the Broadway-bound "On The Town.")

At the moment, his thoughts are most focused on "A Flea in Her Ear," and his hope that audiences laugh with gusto and respond "viscerally. If they're sitting there thinking, 'Isn't this a new way to address a farce?' "-- Linn-Baker looks troubled--"that shouldn't be their first thought." q


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