Showing Dedication and Talent, Not Temper, Sean Penn Helps Revive David Rabe's Hurlyburly

updated 01/09/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/09/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

People have called Sean Penn many things—bratty, brilliant, a brawler, a bully—but until now "inspiration" has never been one of them. Yet that's the role he seems to have played in the restaging of Hurlyburly, David Rabe's hard-edged drama about Hollywood hype, drugs and women. The play, running through Jan. 15 at L.A.'s Westwood Playhouse, had a spectacular Broadway run starring William Hurt in 1984. But even as the New York Times was lauding it as "a production of any playwright's dreams," Rabe was fuming over the acid edge he felt director Mike Nichols had given his work and the dialogue he had cut. Says Rabe: "Mike and I didn't see eye to eye."

It was after Penn called him last summer and suggested they work together that Rabe mounted his own version of Hurlyburly, reinstating much of the dialogue that Nichols had omitted and staging the play in the very city it indicts. Penn and actor Scott Plank play two slick Hollywood casting agents who subject their women and friends to the same fast-talking hype they heap on their clients.

Rabe worried at first that a play about showbiz sleaze and superficiality might cut uncomfortably close to the bone in L.A. "I wondered if there would be a backlash," he says. But the play's producer, Barbara Ligeti, was sure that "even if the town hated it, they would still be intrigued to see it."

Ligeti wasn't all wrong. Opening night was an A-list event, with Madonna, her gal pal comedian Sandra Bernhard and a host of other celebrities in the audience. Bruce Willis and Demi Moore showed up a few nights later, as did Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Barbra Streisand, James Caan and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa enjoyed the performance they saw so much, says Ligeti, that when she ran into the Boss weeks afterward, "he said he and Patti had not stopped talking about it, they had been so stimulated."

But there are only so many Bruces and Pattis, and despite great reviews, the theater is seldom full. Ligeti attributes that partly to California's outdoor life-style. "L.A.'s a warm-weather town, an early town," she says. But Danny Aiello, who plays a neurotic actor, believes that Angelenos lack an appreciation for live drama. "They're not up to seeing plays here," he says. "You can't keep people in their seats for an hour and a half. How are you going to keep them for 3½ hours?"

Indeed, some have been seen slipping away before the third act. "That happens," says Penn. "But hey, their tickets are paid for—who cares?"

Penn had been itching to do a play with Rabe since 1986, when Sean and Madonna appeared in a workshop production of his Goose and Tomtom in New York. "Sean and I had an affinity right away," says Rabe. "I knew he was a good actor, but I had no idea his stage technique was so good." Penn returns the compliment. "David's got a touch with actors," he says, and "his writing is as good as it gets."

Once Penn and Aiello decided to work with him on Hurlyburly, Rabe began to assemble a superlative cast. One of those recruited was Mare Winningham, who was due to give birth to her fifth child when she got the call. After reading for the part of a prostitute, Winningham says, "For the first time in my career, I sat by the phone. I never wanted anything as badly as this part."

Danny Aiello is equally effusive about acting opposite Penn. Sometimes, he admits, during long scenes that require him to stand with his arms around his co-star, "I whisper in his ear, 'I love ya, kid.' You should never do that onstage, but sometimes my emotions get the best of me."

In fact, it would take more than a few empty chairs to dampen the ensemble's enthusiasm for the project. Cast member Michael Lerner says, "Rabe's writing is so inevitable and poetic, you have to say those words!" Adds Winningham: "When we go off to a restaurant, out of David's presence, we all talk about how much we love the text." The actress has helped foster family feeling on the set by bringing along her newborn son, Hap, who naps in her dressing room under a loudspeaker from the stage. "Sometimes I worry," she says, "that he's going to wake up in first grade and say, 'Suck my ----.' "

Despite the rough language and vicious repartee, Penn and Rabe, who huddled constantly during rehearsals, seem to have succeeded in putting across a warmer vision of the play. Rabe credits the cast. "I had been preparing this speech I would give them on opening night," he says, "but then I realized it was totally unnecessary. They were ready to go—like a bunch of thoroughbreds." Yet they hardly acted like jaded professionals when the curtain came down on a flawless first-night performance. "Instead of going back to our dressing rooms," says Winningham, "we sort of huddled back there, hugging and laughing and crying. I haven't had that experience since high school."

—Susan Reed, and Kristina Johnson in Los Angeles

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