Ally in the Shadows

Calista Flockhart shows her dark side onstage

ON ALLY MCBEAL, SHE'S SO CUTE you sometimes want to throttle her. On the New York stage just nowin a 35-min. monologue, the first of three short plays by filmmaker Neil LaBute titled Bash-she plays a woman who confesses to a horific crime, yet by the end you want to give her a sympathetic hug. Sitting at a starkly lit table, apparently in a police station, Calista Flockhart doesn't take long to shed her Ally affectations. Talking in a flat Midwestern twang, she recounts with grueling matter-of-factness how she was seduced by a teacher at age 13, had a baby, was abandoned by him and took revenge by ... well, the playlet is called Medea Redux. Enough said.

Flockhart returns later in the evening as one of a pair of college sweethearts (along with Paul Rudd) describing a weekend jaunt to New York City that ends in a brutal homophobic attack. In between, Ron Eldard plays a salesman who confesses to an unseen companion in a hotel room yet another incomprehensible deed. Flockhart sits that one out. But really, is this any way for Ally McBeal to spend her summer vacation? Yes, it is. Flockhart was a busy, if largely unheralded, New York stage actress (co-starring on Broadway in The Glass Menagerie) before being spirited off to Hollywood two years ago to make her TV fortune. Returning to New York theater for the first time since, she brings to life two vividly drawn, uncompromising characters, both as blinkered to the moral implications of their acts as Ally McBeal is relentlessly self-aware. The Mametesque monologues (LaBute was a playwright before directing his first feature, 1996's In the Company of Men) are a bit formulaic but somehow richer and more convincing than the occasionally forced misanthropy in his films.

"It takes real chops to 'do this stuff," raves her director, Joe Mantello. It takes chops for Flockhart even to sit for an interview these days, since it usually means having to defend her eating habits to total strangers. (She's thin, folks.) But talking in quiet, manicured tones in her dressing room, Flockhart, 34, explained why she chose to spend her hiatus from TV work appearing in a dark off-Broadway play that will do little to boost her stock with Hollywood moguls shopping for the next Julia Roberts. "There was no [career] strategy involved," she says. "I decided back in September that I really wanted to do a play, and I was fascinated by the material. What motivates some people to commit what is, from a judgmental point of view, a heinous act? We don't really acknowledge the irrational aspects of life that exist just because we are human." This is Calista Flockhart the serious actress, not the flighty AUy McBeal, talking. She has appeared in stage readings of Eve Ensler's Necarsary Targets, about Bosnian women refugees, and wants to tackle such roles as St. Joan, Miss Julie and Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera, the precursor to Cabaret. The hard part, of course, will be finding the time. Bash is running for just over a month, and the day after it finishes she'll be back in Los Angeles to start shooting the new season of Ally McBeal. "There's an intensity in the live experience that is very hard to replicate in any other medium," she says. "It's exciting for the audience and for the actors. Whether you land or not-whether you communicate or not-you know it immediately." She lands.