Life is more fun outside the morgue, says Leslie Hendrix.
The actress played medical examiner Elizabeth Rodgers for 19 years and more than 200 episodes in TV's "Law & Order" and its many spinoffs, all the while giving solemn appraisals on causes of death.
But as the self-involved Masha in the Hartford Stage production of Christopher Durang's comedy "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," Hendrix gets to embrace life, cut loose and find her inner diva.
"A woman who is massively self involved, who takes all the air out of the room whereever she goes, why do I like that so much?" she says laughing. "And I get a boy toy, too. I could play this broad forever."
Hendrix says the change of her image is long overdue.
"To be able to do something like this after years of being typecast as the woman in the business suit, the judge's robes or the medical coat is liberating. The role is a juicy, ripe peach waiting to be plucked and devoured. I just adore it. But then again I have always adored playing train wrecks."
One of her most notable devastated-woman roles was as Blanche DuBois in 1992's Broadway production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," understudying for Jessica Lange and going on in the role.
Around that time she auditioned for the series, "Law & Order," which was only two years old. She was hoping for a guest lawyer role but instead landed the part of a stoic medical examiner.
"I was scared to death at first because I had to learn all this medical jargon and play a scene with Chris Noth and Paul Sorvino. I hadn't done any TV so I was just trying to remember my words. I guess [the producers] saw something in my usual defense mechanism — which is to be a smart-ass —and I got the part. A few months later my agent called and said they wanted me again for that character."
Hendrix' gig was not meant to be recurring but the producers of the series — known for its habit of changing casts to keep the show fresh — kept calling her back. "It wasn't until I had been doing it for about 10 years that I thought, 'OK, I guess I have this job.' "
Throughout all the years and all the various "Law & Order" series — where she was one of the longest running characters — Hendrix remained a "day player," signing separate contracts for each and every appearance.
"It was the best part-time job for an actor on the planet," says Hendrix who was last at Hartford Stage in the play "The Story of Life" in the '90s. "I would have preferred to be a regular [with a seasonal contract] but it allowed me to do other things — and for a long time I had to."
"Law & Order" is also noted for not delving into the personal lives of its characters and Rodgers was no exception. Even when Hendrix was "big as a house" when she was pregnant 16 years ago with her first child, her condition wasn't mentioned.
Still, she imagined her own back story to her character "though it changed, depending on my mood or the day. Sometimes it was pretty skanky. In my mind she was not a 'people person' and she has really bad luck with men. I saw her a single mom and all she did was go to work and go home.
"And Jerry [Orbach, who played Det. Lenny Briscoe] was my imaginary boyfriend," she says. "We had this flirtation between the two of us in the morgue that was never acknowledged. He did his quips and I did mine and that's all there was but the fans all got it."
She says she discovered her character liked opera when a character detail was gleaned in a late episode of 'Law & Order: Criminal Intent' after Orbach died in 2004. "It was an here was an episode concerning the opera. And I say to Chris Noth — who was Jerry's work partner years ago on the mothership [referring to the original 'Law & Order' series] — 'Lenny Briscoe took me to the opera and it was one of the best nights of my life.' "
In "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," David Gregory plays the ultimate boy toy: dazzlingly handsome, stunningly fit and the object of more than a few characters' affections.
The actor knows just how that feels.
He has played more than a few hot hunk roles, including the slick producer in the last years of "One Life to Live," a charismatic bad boy in "Deception" and as a bare-chested, long-haired, loin-clothed Fabio-like character named Sebastian in Airborne commercials.
"Here's the deal," says Gregory. "Sometimes people think if an actor takes off his shirt — and pants — there's not a lot of depth to him or that he can't do anything of quality or that is challenging."
But in the case of "Vanya/Spike" "it's in a Tony Award-winning play that is well-written, challenging role for a guy who takes off his shirt."
Gregory says his character is an extreme version of his own personality. "Spike is very outgoing, he loves people, he likes to be everyone's friend and he's kind of not aware of what everyone else feels towards him."
There's a time in an actor's career when you can play a certain marketable type, says the 28-year-old actor, "so I'm playing that card now — within reason."
Did Gregory always have the power of an incredible hunk?
"This is weird," he says. "I grew up in Alaska [he was born and raised in Fairbanks] and I was a really scrawny kid who took ballet lessons and was always playing second banana roles when I was in school."
Gregory says he realized early on that until he worked on his physical assets and not just his theatrical talent the roles he wanted weren't going to come to him.
"I remember auditioning for the tour of [the dance musical] "Movin' Out' when I was in college and I got down to the last cut — and didn't get it. I saw that all the guys that they did cast had muscles. My feedback from the audition was that I still looked like a musical theater kid from Alaska. So I thought, 'OK, I get it.' No one had to tell me. I just knew that if I was going to compete with those guys then I have to do something: about the way I dressed and about the way I looked."
And so he did and by the time he hit New York in 2008 he was a new and strikingly transformed man.
"All this hard work and stuff started to work for me and that felt very empowering."
Roles started coming his way: as Robert Ford for a nearly three years in "One Life to Live," (where he was named "hunkiest newcomer" by soaphunks.net ), the prime-time soap "Deception" where he played Kyle Farrell and roles in TV's "Gossip Girl," "Elementary" and the James Brooks' film "How Do You Know?"
"But somewhere in the back of my mind is still that scrawny kid — which is a good thing, because it balances me out. Maybe I'm a character actor trapped in a leading man's body."
So how does David Gregory stays in-shape now?
A medium-build man at 5'10", Gregory weighs about 175 pounds. Before or after rehearsals, he works out on free weights for 90 minutes, isolating muscles: chest one day, shoulder the next, legs the next. ("Since I stopped dancing you get chicken legs real fast," he says, "so I have to make a conscious effort to work on them.)
Manicures?: "I'm not opposed to them but I'm a nail bitter so I have to grow them out before I can get one."
Pedicures?: "I've never had one. What I'm afraid is that it will tickle and I'll have a spontaneous kick and lose a toe."
Boxers or…: "Briefs."
Unguents?: "Yeah, you've got to do the whole nine yards," he says, which means shaving the chest, tanning, anti-aging creams.
"I know it sounds silly. If I was a character actor maybe it wouldn't be the same but I know there are things you have to take care of and you have to protect and if I want to keep working that's all part of it."
But Gregory's physique has taken many other forms too. He lost 15 pounds for the soon to be released film "Chasing Yesterday" when he has to play a cross country runner.
And if you think he's just another handsome face. Think again. He is producing a short film, "Criminal/Suit" in which he is writing, directing and starring.
Christopher Durang remembers being in his seat at last year's Tony Awards telecast when his play "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" was up for best new play honors.
He was most concerned about making the four steps to the stage.
Six months earlier he ripped his tendons above his knee in a fall on the University Theatre in New Haven while performing "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" with composer Bobby Lopez in a Yale concert production of "Kiss Me Kate."
That was the first time in a long while that he had been back in New Haven where he was the wunderkind writer at the Yale School of Drama in the mid-'70s during the years when Robert Brustein was dean and artistic director of Yale Repertory Theatre.
"Even though I knew and like [Brustein's successor] Lloyd Richards, I didn't go back — and I wasn't asked back. I wasn't as close to Yale as I would otherwise have been."
But he was busy elsewhere, turning out a series of plays that were produced on Broadway ("Beyond Therapy"), off-Broadway ("The Marriage of Bette and Boo," "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You") and in regional theaters. He also performed on stage, TV (the series "Kristen") and in film ("HouseSitter," "Life with Mikey"). And for the past 20 years he has taught playwriting at New York's Juilliard School at Lincoln Center with Pulitzer Prize-winner Marsha Norman (" 'night, mother").
Among Durang's regional and Broadway work was the musical comedy "The History of American Film," which began the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford in 1976 followed by its premiere at Hartford Stage and later moving to Broadway in 1978, where it was nominated for a Tony Award.
"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" strikes a bit of a softer tone for the playwright known for his sardonic, sometimes loopy and dark humor. The play, which is set in bucolic Bucks County, Pa., centers on a pair of long-suffering siblings who have deferred their lives in order to take care of their parents. Their lives are upended when their sister, a glamorous movie star, returns with her trophy boyfriend.
Durang will play the passive-to-a-point Vanya in a production this summer at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pa.
"I thought it would be fun," he says. "At least I hope it will be fun but now the reality of work involved is sinking in — but I'm still looking forward to it."
When asked about the play's success Durang says he "wasn't remotely thinking of Broadway or a Tony so it was a real and lovely surprise when it happened. I also was lucky because there was no wonderful plays of depth this year. It's really hard for a play to win if it's a comedy."
So what made him begin on his Chekhovian odyssey?
"It started with me discovering that I am old enough now to be among the older characters of Chekhov though I'm not Firs yet," he says referring to an ancient servant in "The Cherry Orchard."
"I decided I was not going to do a parody but just do Chekhov themes — like looking back at your life — and use some of the names," he says.
"I knew I wanted [the Masha character] to have a boy toy and I wanted a name that didn't say Chekhov in any way."
He also says he also didn't want it to end tragically, "the way Chekhov plays often end — which is right for them."
It surprised many of his fans — as well as himself — when his play had a happy ending. A friend said to him after the New York opening: "I can't believe it. In Act Two the characters all make some good choices for themselves and it ends up feeling optimistic. It's so unlike you."
"Yeah, I do find that in my youth I did tend to have darker endings or endings that weren't that hopeful, even though the plays were comic. I find now that I don't like work that ends too darkly. I like it that the audience sort of felt happy at the end. It's a nice thing."
But if there are those who think Durang has gone gooey, never fear.
"I started a new play that is awfully dark," he says. "It's triggered by some unpleasant things on the news."
"VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE," now in previews, opens May 28 and continues through June 22 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St. Information: www.hartfordstage.org and 860-527-5151.