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B.D. Wong plays favorites in 'Herringbone'

August 1, 2009 | 11:00 am

B.D. Wong in Herringbone

In "Herringbone," the quirky vaudevillian musical that opens at the La Jolla Playhouse on Friday, B.D. Wong plays nearly a dozen people including an 8-year-old boy, his not-always-benevolent parents, the vengeful dwarf whose spirit possesses him, the man the dwarf wants to kill and the woman the dwarf wants to seduce.

So which character is his favorite?

"The mother," says Wong, who shot to fame on Broadway in the 1980s in "M. Butterfly" and now appears in NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

"Probably because I have issues about my own mother in that I prefer to idealize her rather than

to criticize her," he says. "I probably have gone down a longer road to find the truth about the mother than some of the other characters."

In a sense, that long road began in 1982 when Wong first saw "Herringbone" in New York. He was so fascinated by the Tom Cone-Skip Kennon-Ellen Fitzhugh show he has spent two decades pursuing every chance he can get to perform in it. The La Jolla production will be his fourth, and the third directed by the veteran actor Roger Rees.

As he's grown older -- and more comfortable with Cone's twisting-turning script -- Wong keeps finding new ways to approach the play and the people in it. The mother, for instance, "used to be my favorite because I loved her a little too much," says Wong, 48. "And now, she's my favorite because she is one of the richer, more complex and less sympathetic characters."

How does playing her and the rest of "Herringbone's" motley cast compare with taking on his other big multiple-identity role: the man-woman lover-spy in David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly?"

"In 'Butterfly,' I felt in some ways more pressure because I felt responsible for the play's working," says Wong. "I thought, 'This is really a great play' but it will bomb if I don't work.... This is a different kind of stress. This is physically demanding and, intellectually, it requires more concentration. It's more athletic. It's a different kind of challenging."

Read more about Wong and "Herringbone" in Sunday's Arts & Books section or click here.

-- Karen Wada

Photo: B.D. Wong in "Herringbone" at the LaJolla Playhouse. Credit: Lia Chang