October 20, 2008

Daily News article

James Denton on stage with his leading lady
By Evan Henerson, Staff Writer

To hear James Denton tell it, his wife — who rarely acts — is the more skilled performer in the family.

Which might seem a little odd since Erin O'Brien works as a fitness trainer and developer of exercise videos while Denton earns a living playing plumber Mike Delfino on "Desperate Housewives."

Denton and O'Brien will be on stage together as the stars and producers of "How Cissy Grew," which opens this weekend at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. In the 70-minute drama, Denton and O'Brien play the parents of a child who is abducted as an infant. The child is immediately returned unharmed, but the incident has reverberations in the lives of the entire family.

Denton took part in an early reading of Susan Johnston's play in part to give O'Brien — who studied theater at New York University — a crack at another great role. He signed on for the full production because his part wasn't so shabby either.

"Erin is really good, and she never gets to do it," says Denton, with his wife at the theater. "When I read the script again, I realized there was also a lot there for (the character of) Butch, too.

"We met acting in a play together. This is the first time we're trying this since we've been married," he continues. "We'll see how it goes."

"I'm not trying to jump-start my acting career," adds O'Brien. "But there does come a moment in your life with your family (that) you go, 'I kind of need to get back in touch with things I used to really love to do,' and now is kind of a good opportunity to do that."

Carving out the time for husband and wife to pull off this endeavor has taken patience and creativity. It's been nearly two years from initial reading to NoHo. The producers had hoped to mount the play in the spring, but the settlement of the strike by theWriters Guild of America strike ultimately pushed the "Desperate Housewives" cast to begin shooting on Saturdays, placing the play on hold.

Denton has juggled his "Housewives" shooting schedule with rehearsals for Band From TV, a group of actors who play concerts for charities. Denton is also part owner of the minor league baseball team the Fullerton Flyers. The minor league season, he notes, had concluded by the time "How Cissy Grew" went into rehearsals.

With "Housewives" now carrying 19 regulars, cast members are rarely needed on set more than twice a week. Denton, who has an understudy for "Cissy," is hoping he'll be able to appear at every performance.

"I was in there politicking and lobbying for time off," he says with a chuckle. "I didn't fare too well."

O'Brien, meanwhile, teaches fitness classes three times weekly. Their children, who are in kindergarten and preschool, are covered.

For the time being, O'Brien is happy if occasionally exhausted.

"I had forgotten how all-consuming it could be, and it can't be that," O'Brien says. "I have to go home and be a mom and a wife. But it's also the great thing about theater that you don't get much from film and TV: When you start to rehearse, you get to know people and develop these really amazing relationships. That's why doing theater always kind of feels like being in summer camp."

The Tennessee-born Denton can certainly relate. A self-described "theater guy," he used community theater as an outlet to blow off steam generated by his day job as an advertising salesman. Quitting his job and moving to Chicago, Denton acted in 16 plays in five years, supplementing his on-the-job education by reading books on acting techniques.

His wife, Denton says, is the one with the Master of Fine Arts degree. Denton has never taken an acting class, although his life in the stage trenches taught him some other key skills.

"I do all the home-improvement stuff: flooring, drywall, plumbing. I learned it all in the theater, building sets," he says. "In Chicago theater, if you're not acting, you're doing everything else."

A nearly broke Denton moved to L.A., giving himself a year to get a TV and film career. He made the movies "Face/Off," "Primary Colors" and "That Old Feeling" and played the sociopathic Mr. Lyle on TV's "The Pretender." Roles on "Threat Matrix" and the short-lived "Philly" followed before "Housewives" came along.

It's a great gig, says Denton, who still insists that he never envisioned himself having a career in front of a camera.

"I don't enjoy it very much," he says of nonlive work, "and as far as the acting is concerned, it's not really rewarding. You're at everybody's mercy. The editors and directors control what they use and how they cut you.

"At the theater, if the performance is good, you can be proud of it," he says. "If you suck, you suck, and you have no one to blame but yourself."

Evan Henerson (818) 713-3651

Where: El Portal Theatre.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; through Nov. 23.
Tickets: $35 to $40. (818) 508-4200, www.elportaltheatre.com.

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