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Late Bloomer

Aging has not been a professional hardship for actress-singer Alix Korey. On the contrary, she is working more than ever, has a fine reputation—indeed, a real following—and, after 25-plus years in the business, she doesn't much worry about typecasting anymore.

"Typecasting was a problem for me when I was in my 20s and early 30s and I wanted to play leading ladies and nobody took me seriously," recalls Korey. "I was identified with comedy. But once I hit my 40s, I became a 'character' actress [with no shortage of roles]. I frequently play [comically] aggressive women, but I'm at an advantage over other actors who are typecast because the pieces I've been in are so varied."

In "Suburb," a light musical piece that opened Off-Broadway at the York Theatre on March 1, she plays Rhoda Ravitch, a strident realtor who is actually (as implausible as it may sound) a sweet soul. She is the lynchpin in a story that considers the crises surrounding moving—metaphorically and existentially as well as literally—into and out of the suburbs. (Yes, seriously.)

And Korey cuts a memorable figure as Rhoda, an insistent woman who stalks about the stage and speaks in the most dreadful, yet hilarious, nasal whine.

"Rhoda is one of the most multi-dimensional roles I've ever played," asserts Korey, a gregarious Merrick, Long Island native, who is chatting with us over the phone. "She is allowed to run the gamut of emotions, especially in her relationship with the young, married Alison [Jacquelyn Piro], who's struggling with the idea that she might have to move to the suburbs.

"Rhoda starts out with a hard edge and then moves to that horrible moment when she becomes a kind of mother to Alison and makes her feel guilty about not wanting to move to the suburbs. But in the end, there's a complete turn-around and Rhoda becomes very positive. She says, 'Look, you're making a big deal over things you have no control over,' and then adds, 'I'm not a philosopher, I'm a realtor.' But in a way, she is a philosopher. She has a real life view and recognizes what's significant when others don't.

"The major challenge in playing Rhoda is to make sure she has a sense of reality and truth," Korey continues. "She could easily become cartoonish, someone you want to hang up on. My job is to clue into that part of her that just wants to be loved and doesn't have the slightest idea as to how to go about it."

Korey was most recently seen in Manhattan Theatre Club's "The Wild Party," earning a Drama Desk nomination for her showstopping turn as a butch lesbian. Earlier, she played an ur-yenta mama in "No Way to Treat a Lady," also at the York Theatre. For that role, she garnered an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination. And for the last 10 years, she has performed on a fairly regular basis on the cabaret scene, receiving Back Stage's Bistro Award in 1992.

Korey is first and foremost a musical performer ("Belting is natural to me"), but she makes the point that, "I think as an actress. I always tell my students at NYU's musical theatre program, 'If you want to make a beautiful sound, play the oboe. There is nothing more boring than seeing someone on stage making beautiful sounds.' Yes, of course, a singer can touch me emotionally, but the actor tells the story, makes me think and feel. The actor is someone who can change my life."

A Zen Belter

What emerges in talking to Korey is just how refreshingly straightforward, unassuming, and modest she is. Consider this: Korey is stunned, she admits frankly, when she is told she is an admired performer—indeed, that anyone has even heard of her—or wants to interview her.

"A high point for me," she notes, elated even in retrospect, "was being nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award for my performance in 'No Way to Treat a Lady' and then getting the Bistro Award. I was already in my 40s, thinking my career was over. I'm still star struck and getting those honors was so cool."

Like most performers, Korey is familiar with struggle, disappointment, and unrealized dreams. Yet, she seems to have made peace with all that reality stuff (well, within parameters).

"I've gotten to a Zen place. I read somewhere—and I believe it applies to me—that 'Happiness is not getting what you want, but wanting what you get.' After a point, I don't think it's possible to live with constant want—the fact that someone else got that part or audition and I didn't.

"In my 30s, I wanted to be a star in a TV series and then get a leading role on Broadway, knowing that my name would bring in audiences. If that had happened, would I have been happier now? I don't know. Would I still want to be a star in a TV series? Absolutely! I still want things, but those wants are not defining me!"

She is married to lighting designer Randy Hanson and lets it be known that she is the proud owner of a dog!

An Instinctive Performer

Korey grew up in an educated and middle-class home, she says; her father served as the director of the United Nation's Office of the International Council of B'nai B'rith. From the outset, she was a singer, entertaining family and friends.

"I did it instinctively. That was the one way I could express myself. I was the quiet, good girl, never the center of attention. Singing was my connection to others."

By the time she was of college age, she knew she was headed for a career in theatre, but her parents wanted her to go to Barnard (where she had been accepted), instead of a theatre conservatory.

"They felt a seven sister school would give me a strong base. So I went to Barnard, majored in English, and graduated in three-and-a-half years, I was so anxious to get out."

At the same time, she appeared in as many college productions as possible, worked in summer stock, and studied privately (acting and musical theatre) with Aaron Frankel at HB studios.

Although she viewed her college years as "biding my time," she now has no regrets about her academic studies, which gave her, at least, some sense of history. And that's more than many of her pupils have, she says.

"When they do a scene from 'Assassins,' for example, I find I have to tell them about the '60s. They don't know much about it, or understand the sense of betrayal we felt as a generation—beginning with the assassination of President Kennedy. They're not exposed to history [or other cultural events and ideas] in high school or at home, either."

Korey, who has been on both sides of the classroom (as student and teacher), boasts some strongly held convictions about the approach to theatre training.

"The acting-singing teaching gurus who feel 'my way or no way,' should be avoided," she advises. "I don't think students should be made to feel that they're making a wrong choice in a scene. There are strong and weak choices, but no wrong choices. But that doesn't mean teachers should encourage students to feel comfortable on stage, either. That approach leads to a static work ethic. If you're challenged and afraid—that's good."

On the emotionally charged subject of just how honest a singing-acting teacher should be in terms of assessing a student's talent, Korey says this: "When I was studying with Aaron Frankel, a wonderful teacher and a very honest one, there was a girl in the class who clearly had no talent. I asked him why he didn't tell her the truth, to which his response was, 'I just don't know for certain that she has no talent. After all, Julie Harris was thrown out of Yale Drama School for no talent.' "

Korey pauses to recall a personal anecdote. "I took a summer theatre course at Carnegie Tech [now known as Carnegie Mellon] when I was a teenager. At the end of the summer, their evaluation of me was, 'Her intellectual acuity is far superior to her emotional accessibility. Therefore, she should really reconsider if a career in theatre is right for her.' Of course, when you get a comment like that, you cry a lot. But I went on because I had to.

"I would tell any theatre student that if the impulse is there he should do it, regardless of what someone says. But don't do it just because you're trying to prove someone else wrong!"

The Best of Both Worlds

Clearly, Korey was not held back by that early Carnegie Mellon critique and is scoring on stage, on CD, and on the cabaret scene. Interestingly, she credits her decade-long cabaret work with strengthening her performances in theatre.

"After 10 years of breaking that fourth wall and including the audience the way you do in a cabaret piece, I find that I am able to go back into a play and forget the audience completely. I can now disappear behind the fourth wall and not worry about an audience's judgment or mine. The experience of performing in a cabaret has made it possible for me to appear in a play without watching myself or listening to myself. I am in the present. I am the character."

She laughs, "Obviously, I know I'm playing a character on stage, telling a writer's story—otherwise, I'd need [psychotropic] medication. But then, there's a fine line between being an actor and being bipolar!"

PULL QUOTE: "The major challenge in playing Rhoda [in "Suburb" at the York Theatre] is to make sure she has a sense of reality and truth. She could easily become cartoonish."

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