Eric Burke has played some monster roles onstage. Often, he’s appeared in parts previously made famous by some of the world’s best-known actors. Burke has played Lee in Sam Shepard’s True West, a role owned for years by John Malkovich, and appeared again in Glengarry Glen Ross as Richard Roma, a role played indelibly onscreen by Al Pacino.
This month, he steps into the shoes of another legendary icon: Kirk Douglas.
In director James Dunn’s sprawling new stage production of Sidney Kingsley’s epic Detective Story, opening next week at the College of Marin, Burke takes on the part of hardboiled detective Jim McLeod, played by Douglas in the Oscar-nominated 1951 drama of the same name. The original 1949 play—with a cast of over 50 actors and a jigsaw-puzzle day-in-the-life storyline—turned heads and elicited condemnation for its frank references to alcoholism, police brutality, abortion and mental illness. Douglas’ performance, a masterpiece of film noir acting, is considered one of the finest of his career.
With Burke in the lead and a huge cast that includes some of the best working actors in the Bay Area, COM’s Detective Story has already become one of the big must-see theater events of the year. McLeod, admits Burke, is his favorite kind of role: juicy, meaty and full of enormous contradictions.
It’s not easy, especially in a show like this one, in which phones ring, characters weave constantly in and out of the scene and 20 things seem to be happening at once. “In Detective Story,” Burke continues, “I spend a lot of time talking on the phone. For the audience, it’s easy to not get involved in those kinds of scenes,. but if the actor is doing his job, you can feel that relationship anyway.”
But is he ever concerned about the famous actors whose stamp is on so many of his best roles? Burke laughs, recalling his stint playing Jessep in A Few Good Men, which gave him one of the most famous lines in motion picture history.
“That was interesting,” Burke says. “Every night, as I was building up to the moment when I’d say, ‘You can’t handle the truth,’ you could feel the audience anticipating that. All I could do was be true to the character, and make it as real as I could. If I’d tried to do it the way Nicholson did it, I’d have been betraying my craft.
“With Detective Story,” he adds, “it’s all about playing this incredible, interesting, complicated character. Kirk Douglas is the furthest thing from my mind.”
‘Detective Story’ runs Friday-Sunday through March 20 in the Fine Arts Theatre at College of Marin. Friday-Saturday at 8pm; 2pm matinees, Sundays and March 19. Sir Francis Drake Boulevard at Laurel Avenue, Kentfield. $10-$20. 415.485.9385.