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Marylouise Burke Gets Seriously Funny

In “Rx,” the actress finds the softer side of her comic chops

The Playbill for Rx, now being produced by Primary Stages, casts Marylouise Burke in a familiar light: She’s listed in the role of “Frances, a widow in need of new underwear.”

Sure enough, when we meet Frances in Kate Fodor’s new comedy about love in the time of serotonin receptor agonists, she emerges from among reams of pillowcase-sized panties in a department store and is soon tugging on a pair to test their resilience.

The audience is prepared to witness Burke in all the batty, saucy, flibbertigibbety splendor that has characterized her work in shows like Fuddy Meers, a wild comedy about a kidnapped amnesiac, and Is He Dead?, a Mark Twain farce. But then something funny happens: Frances isn’t all that funny. Or, rather, she is, but in a way that conveys real emotion and regret. As she puts it to Meena (Marin Hinkle), her frequent confidante in the underthings department, “I was terribly lonely after I fell in love and got married.”

“I love that line,” Burke says. “She ends up being such a truth-teller in her way, and those scenes in the underwear aisle are these lovely oases in the play.”

The diminutive Burke, who refers to her age simply as “the new 51,” has made a career out of stealing scenes from her younger and taller costars. But she says the approach for taking on a role like Frances, who lost her husband 27 years ago and still can’t bring herself to toss out his hideous avocado-colored sofa, is no different from her showier parts. “In each case, I’m trying to play the language and play the connection, and I think that keeps the proportion right,” she says. “The challenge is to not condescend to the part in any way, and what really attracted me to this role was that Kate didn’t condescend, either. She never pokes fun.”

Burke has appeared in several recent pieces by the likes of Adam Rapp (American Sligo) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Fuddy Meers and the title role in Kimberly Akimbo), and she attributes much of her success to the fact that the writers attend each other’s plays and then think of her for subsequent roles.

Her penchant for new work began when she arrived in New York in the late 1970s and fell in with what she calls “the post-La MaMa and Caffe Cino scene,” referring to two pivotal theatres in the creation of what would become known as off-Off-Broadway. Some of her earliest New York appearances were in the bawdy, ramshackle assemblages known as … And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid. “You didn’t know how many scenes you’d be doing that night until you got to the theatre,” she says.

But it wasn’t until Fuddy Meers in 1999 that Burke, who combined her first two names after learning that Equity already had a Mary L. Burke on file, was able to pay her own rent solely as an actor. “That was the last time I had a day job,” she says. “I remember because I was leaving my day job to go to Fuddy Meer auditions.” She was a receptionist and file clerk for an ad agency at the time, and she maintains that the American theatre’s gain is the corporate world’s loss: “I am a very good secretary.”

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Eric Grode is the author of the recently released “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press).

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