NEW YORK - Morticians have occasion to think often and long about death. By association, so do those who play morticians - in this case, Peter Krause, the star of television's Six Feet Under.
Four seasons into the HBO drama, Krause, with his seductive forelock of brown hair cascading toward an eyebrow, says it was a complete surprise to have found himself playing Nate Fisher, brooding scion of a Los Angeles funeral home family whose strange adventures make up the plot of Alan Ball's hit series.
A philosophical kind of fellow, Krause (pronounced KROW-za) has decided his casting "somehow makes sense" anyway. "I'm fascinated with human life. I think it's a surprise - that we're here at all."
At the moment, "here" is Krause's dressing room at the American Airlines Theatre, where the 38-year-old Minnesota native is starring as Quentin in the first Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's After the Fall. (The show opened Thursday to generally lackluster reviews.)
Widely regarded as Miller's alter ego in the guise of an intellectual New York lawyer, Quentin struggles with the complicated women and issues in his pin-striped life.
Krause arrives backstage dressed like the casual Left Coast Nate: orange Abercrombie cargo cutoffs, sandals and a backpack tossed over the shoulder of his roomy, faded blue T-shirt.
But he allows there are similarities between his two angst-ridden characters - and between them and him.
His photograph on the Playbill cover shows Quentin as a tortured soul, eyes closed, a clenched fist drawn to his lips a la Rodin's "The Thinker." It could just as well be neurotic Nate Fisher agonizing over yet another disillusionment.
"They are both at odds with their place in the world, both mourn the loss of their innocence," Krause says. He quotes Quentin: "The days, the months and now the years are draining away."
Crossroads of identities
In the first episode of Six Feet Under, free-spirited Nate came home to L.A. to visit, his father died, his mother asked him to stay and help with the family business, and "now a few days have turned into months and years."
Krause stops with the comparisons. "I've tried not to think about this too much." His own father suffered from depression, and the actor was in therapy as a teenager. Living with the character of Nate for four years hasn't been easy, he says.
The current season of Six Feet Under began airing shortly before previews began for After the Fall, and with no performances on Sunday nights, Krause caught an episode or two.
Now that he's well into the demanding routine of eight stage performances a week, he would "rather just do something with my son," 2-year-old Roman, whose mother is Krause's companion, Christine King, a former manager of writers and actors.
Fans who see him around town often deluge him with their theories about the convolutions of the Fisher clan.
"It's a little strange," being at this crossroads of identities, says Krause, who expects to find it "really strange" later this month, when his new movie, We Don't Live Here Anymore, opens and all three personalities will be out there on view at the same time.
A history with Nate
In the film, he plays Hank, a college professor caught up in a couples switcheroo. "It's a stark look at relationships," says Krause, who suspects women viewers may call Hank a jerk - the actor uses a more graphic term - "so I have to defend him: Hank is more brutally honest with himself."
The different roles "influence your own life in different ways, like parallel psyches," Krause says. "I have a history now with Nate."
At the end of last season, Nate got beat up in a barroom brawl, and "ghostly visions of my dead father and wife appear to me. We filmed that episode until 2 in the morning, and then I got on a plane and flew to Vancouver to begin filming the movie - with a lot of last-minute script changes. I felt like I was walking on quicksand, having to shift gears so quickly."
After he finished filming the current season, Krause moved his family to New York to begin rehearsals for After the Fall. His Broadway debut comes in a huge role - Quentin never leaves the stage - created by the late, legendary Jason Robards in 1964. The play has been intensely analyzed because Quentin's second wife (played by Carla Gugino) is assumed to have been based on playwright Miller's second wife, Marilyn Monroe.
Krause earned his master's degree in theater from New York University but has worked primarily in television, including Sports Night and Cybill (for which HBO's Ball was a longtime writer). Despite his limited stage experience, he is a catch for a stage production eager to appeal to a wide audience. Joking that he "has a long association with Broadway shows," Krause rattles off titles from Cats to Fences that were up and running when he was in college. Then he adds, "... as a bartender."
He'd told his agents he wasn't interested in doing any theater so he could spend time with his son, "unless anything remarkable came up." Which it did. Michael Mayer, who's directing After the Fall and won a Tony for his revival of Miller's A View From the Bridge, says he has found it "thrilling" to work with Krause.
A hunk with brains
"Someone who looks like that you usually don't credit with being a philosophical person," Mayer says. "You just don't assume a real classic Hollywood hunk is going to have a remarkably complicated, sophisticated thinking process. I love that we've got a sexy Quentin up there."
Mayer sees a resemblance between Krause and Miller: "Even at 89, he's sexy." And there are other things: "Peter has an amazingly accessible persona, he's so appealing, gregarious, unpretentious - just like Arthur. And Quentin, too."
Miller has never acknowledged that his character is autobiographical. "We haven't broached the subject - nor do I think we should," Krause says. He prefers to look at the play as being "about the larger theme of bearing true witness to your life." Quentin, who wrestles with ramifications of the McCarthy hearings and the Holocaust, as well as high-strung women, "comes to the place where he can start to reclaim his place in the world," in Krause's view.
He doesn't think that has happened for Nate, whose life he sees as a modern-day version of long-suffering Job. While every theater script has an ending, he has no idea what will befall his TV character from one script to the next, but he doesn't mind: "It's like life; you don't know what's going to happen."
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