Acting Up Off-Off-Broadway, John Kennedy Jr. Auditions a New Stage for Himself

updated 08/26/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/26/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The theater sports graffiti instead of a marquee. The Great White Way lies several blocks to the east, and the neighborhood had witnessed a horrible double murder that very week. But if the setting wasn't a draw, the leading man was. When John Kennedy Jr., 24, made his New York acting debut on Aug. 4 at a 75-seat theater on Manhattan's West Side, he brought his famous family into one public arena it hadn't yet conquered. Although the run was only six performances, the enthusiasm for Kennedy was not so short lived. "He's one of the best young actors I've seen in years," says Nye Heron, executive director of the Irish Arts Center, where the play was mounted.

The role that Kennedy chose for his first production was bleak. As the male lead in Winners, a four-character Brian Friel drama that was first seen on Broadway in 1968, he played an Irish-Catholic teenager engaged to marry his pregnant girlfriend. At the end of the 90-minute play, the tragic pair is found drowned. Although the drama is set in Northern Ireland, Kennedy experienced no culture clash. "His accent was specific, right down to a county," notes Heron. "He hung around someone with that accent and picked it up."

Kennedy's debut was one of the theater season's best-kept secrets. Critics were not welcome, nor was the public. "We didn't want a circus, something exploitive," says Heron. Admission was by invitation only, and a heavyweight security guard was posted at the door. The theater filled each night with friends and family, among them Kara Kennedy, Billy Smith, Tony Radziwill. A fit-looking Robert F. Kennedy Jr., with his wife, Emily, made one of his rare public appearances since his drug problems made news two years ago. But immediate family was not front row center. Jacqueline Onassis and Caroline Kennedy missed the show because they were out of town.

Despite the attention it brought him, Winners was mere moonlighting for Kennedy. Since last summer he has worked as a management and planning assistant in New York City's Office of Business Development. But some feel he could have an acting career for the asking. Says Kennedy's director, Robin Saex: "He has an earnestness that just shines through." Adds a prominent casting director: "He really does have natural talent. He's never had a professional acting class in his life, but he has presence—maybe because of all those years in the public eye he's developed it."

Kennedy has been dabbling in the theater since his undergraduate days at Brown University, where he appeared in student productions of In the Boom Boom Room and the prison drama Short Eyes among others. Winners arose out of Brown's theater mafia in New York. Kennedy's costar was Christina Haag, who attended Brown with him and now studies acting at Juilliard. Director Saex also graduated from Brown, as did the lighting designer and assistant stage manager.

Joining them was actor Kevin Breslin (son of columnist Jimmy Breslin and husband to the costume designer), who arranged with Heron for the use of the Irish Arts Center. With Breslin aboard as associate producer, rehearsals were about to begin last April when, faster than anyone could say "break a leg," Kennedy injured his foot while lifting weights at a gym. The play was postponed until a month ago when the team went back into rehearsal.

Since closing on Aug. 9 the production has received several offers to move to a commercial off-Broadway engagement. But the public isn't likely to see Kennedy strut and fret his hour upon the stage anytime soon. For one thing, he's not even a card-carrying member of Actors' Equity. For another, he professes not to pine for a life in the theater. "This is definitely not a professional acting debut by any means," he said during the show's run. "It's just a hobby." For a newcomer to the New York stage, that kind of comment is perfectly politic.

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