November 27, 1997   



ACTOR'S ACTOR: Katy Selverstone


A Light Inside


With a Katy Selverstone performance, we're immediately put on notice that we're in the presence of something extraordinary, and our initial reflex is to see the technique. In Scotland Road, Jeffrey Hatcher's play about a mysterious young woman who appears to be a supernaturally preserved present-day survivor of the Titanic, now on at Pacific Resident Theatre Ensemble through next weekend, Selverstone emerges—a tall, slender woman with huge, serious eyes and an elegant little slice of a mouth—to be questioned by a man with dubious motives. She does not make a sound until the act break.


"I think an interesting analogy for the character during the first act is that she's sort of thawing," said Selverstone in a recent interview. "So everything is slowed down—her thinking, her reponses, her feelings. It's like there's this light inside of her, but she doesn't have a very strong hold on it, and it's what's keeping her alive. When [the man questioning her] starts to say these things, these lies, it's like the light starts to diminish, and she tries to protect it by disengaging a bit and focusing on keeping it lit."


By play's end, Selverstone has spoken in an effortless Welsh accent and shed a torrent of tears without really crying—but by then we're not watching her technique. Yes, she studied theatre at Carnegie Mellon and can expound intelligently on the characters she plays—an insight she owes to psychoanalysis, she said—but what emerges so resoundingly is that the formidable presence we felt initially is not about smart acting tricks but soul. The "something extraordinary" we sense at first sight turns out to be the real thing.


After working in regional and Off-Broadway theatre, Selverstone first came to West Coast attention as the edgy girlfriend of the title nebbish on The Drew Carey Show. After finishing Quills at the New York Theatre Workshop, she came west for good, did some more Drew, landed a juicy role in the unordered Scott Winan/Winnie Holzman pilot The L Word, and appeared in a small but memorable role in the Blank Theatre Company's production of Breaking the Code opposite Dennis Christopher.


Indeed, though she keeps busy with episodic work and features—she's on an upcoming C-16 and recently completed a role as an FBI agent in a thriller called Love Letters From a Killer—Selverstone has notably blossomed on L.A. stages, especially as a PRTE member, where she did an achingly beautiful, volatile turn as a trophy moll in Golden Boy last year, and is now doing her haunting and finely honed work in Scotland Road. Also a member of the Nexus Theatre Ensemble, Selverstone appeared as a lovelorn dressmaker in Steven Dietz's Trust earlier this year.


Though it's hard to generalize about such wide-ranging roles, what's true of all Selverstone's performances is that her characters are so strongly, vividly present that we can't take our eyes off them, and images of their strivings and gestures stay with us: as the young Pat Green picnicking in Breaking the Code, leaning back on her arms and throwing her hair back for a generous laugh; as the fight promoter's girl, Lorna, in Golden Boy, wringing a torrent of tears over a park bench as she tries to reach out to a sensitive boxer (that's Odets for you), or now, in Hatcher's play, looking up wordlessly at her inquisitor with beseeching, faintly mocking eyes. To sum up the finely shaded range Selverstone summons onstage, the word that comes to mind is prowess.


She has a more straightforward term.


"Balls," she said. "That's my favorite thing: to walk onstage with balls—to not only make brave choices, but then to play them through bravely and fully. That's what I admire and what I aspire to."


Mission accomplished.

Rob Kendt