A program from the memorial tribute to legendary actor Jason Robards Jr. sits on David Burtka's dressing-room table, testimony to his dedication to serious work.
The 25-year-old has settled into a successful run in Edward Albee's "The Play About the Baby," and feels he's broken through the typecasting he's faced for many years. "My whole life, I've been the all-American boy," he says, "and as an actor, you find what you are and what you fit into to get your foot in the door."
His earlier regional theater work, in roles such as the spunky youth in "The Music Man" and the callow young man in "Ah! Wilderness!" gave him a chance to learn his craft. He even did a stint in the touring company of "Beauty and the Beast." Now, he hopes to focus his career on dramatic work.
"I've been an Albee fan since I started studying theater [seven years ago]," Burtka explains. "I love all his work." And after a series of musical theater parts in New York and elsewhere, "I took all the musical theater off my resume, went back to studying, and did commercials for income. I was at an audition for an AT&T commercial spot, and someone told me about auditions for a new Albee play. I jumped at the chance."
Last February, Burtka found himself cast in the new four-character play, which included veteran stage actors Marian Seldes and Earl Hyman, with the playwright himself sitting in the director's chair. The premiere tryout run was scheduled for Houston's Alley Theatre.
Now the production is playing at Off-Broadway's Century Center for the Performing Arts. "I play the Boy, half of a young married couple who have a baby taken from them. He's innocent, simple in a way, with no real harsh past."
Like all of Albee's work, interpretations abound regarding the characters, the events, and their meanings.
Burtka concedes that "it's very difficult for all four of us, because it's Man, Woman, Boy, and Girl, and not actual realistic characters. He adds that Albee "was very gracious" during rehearsals: "He answered any questions we had."
Despite the abstract nature of the piece, real emotions are portrayed. "Those things are very true to real life, issues having to do with loss and pain. Without wounds, who are you, what can you ever be? If you don't live with depression sometimes, how can you grow?"
During his boyhood in suburban Michigan, Burtka received support from his parents for his acting ambitions.
"My mom runs an office, and my dad's a special-ed teacher. My problems had to do with relationships. Edward added new lines while we were in Houston - about wounds - and I broke down, and couldn't stop crying for hours. I looked at my past life, and something clicked inside me."
His previous acting experience has also contributed to the role. "Musical theater performing helped me a lot in this piece.... It's like we're instruments up there, doing a concerto," he says.
His new visibility has already reaped some offers, and he expects "to be playing all different roles in the future, on the stage and in films and television." He was asked "to do a teen thriller movie, but I'm committed to stay in this play. It will only make me stronger as an actor. I keep discovering things."
And he's conscious about the physical stamina needed to deliver a top-notch performance eight times a week.
"A lot of my friends are out every night ... being crazy in New York City, but not me. You have to take care of yourself."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor