- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2003

Bronson Pinchot doesn't mind critics who see nothing but Balki, the character with the hard-to-place accent from ABC's "Perfect Strangers," whenever he first steps on stage.

A good actor can make anyone forget his or her past roles, Mr. Pinchot insists, recalling a dream review he received for a Shakespearean play last year.

"I know this may come as a shock, but he was born to do Shakespeare," Mr. Pinchot recalls from the critic's words during a recent phone interview.

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No, the critic was not referring to Mr. Pinchot's previous acting experience speaking an English people have a hard time understanding.

Critics, and audiences at large, Mr. Pinchot says, will forgive if the work stands on its own. "If you have the chops, then it's just five minutes into the performance and they go, 'Fine,' " he says.

These days, the versatile actor is touring with "Stones in His Pockets," a critically celebrated play about a small Irish town beset by a Hollywood film crew. The original production earned London's Olivier Award for best comedy. Its touring incarnation stops in at the Kennedy Center Tuesday for a month-long stay.

Mr. Pinchot may not have a sitcom or major film career right now, but he has carved himself a niche with animated voice-over work, independent films and steady stage work.

Playing a memorable sitcom character can be career poison: Just imagine Bob Denver (TV's most famous castaway, Gilligan) auditioning for "Hamlet," and you get the idea. Jim Backus (Mr. Howell) as Polonius, on the other hand, just might have worked.

Mr. Pinchot says he emerged from "Perfect Strangers," which ended in 1993, with more acting choices than one might have expected.

"I'm blessed. Somehow, my label when I came out of the show was 'chameleon,' " he says.

That adaptability is just what he'll need in "Stones," in which he plays a gaggle of characters along with co-star Tim Ruddy.

He first joined the production in Ireland two years ago, when the original Irish cast was Broadway bound.

"You could see instantly what the beauty of it was," he says of the two-person show. "There are no crutches … you're in an empty theater, and we have to fill it up."

At first, his instincts told him to pass.

"I saw it and said it's too much to take on. Each of those accents would take me months to learn," he says.

He tackled it anyway, and soon found that performing multiple characters was like solving a crossword puzzle.

"You come to one that's too hard, and you move on," he says. Later, by working on characters you are more comfortable with, the other, more challenging parts come into focus.

"You start to see that's what it has to be. You can figure stuff out," he says.

"There are characters in this play I love so deeply, but I didn't know them at all [at first]. One day in London, one character just appeared. He had this walk … he's instantly recognizable," Mr. Pinchot says.

The play demands as much of its audience as it does of its cast.

"It asks them to see the invisible," he says. One of the many characters he plays, for example, is a gorgeous starlet. Mr. Pinchot inhabits the part without changing from his grubby main costume.

"I pantomime that I have long, lustrous, beautiful hair. The audience sees it right away," he says.

Mr. Pinchot began his career with small roles in "Risky Business" (1983) and "The Flamingo Kid" (1984).

"In the early '80s, I was the expert at playing the nerd," he recalls.

That work led to "Perfect Strangers," a role specifically created for his talents. He played a peculiarly accented immigrant who moves in with his straight-laced Chicago cousin.

That gig, along with his scene-stealing cameo in 1984's "Beverly Hills Cop," catapulted him into features. Major roles in two flops, 1989's "Second Sight" and 1992's "Blame It on the Bellboy," cooled his big-screen career, but he did score a minor victory with 1993's "True Romance."

This year, Mr. Pinchot has two small films coming out, "Second Best" with Joe Pantoliano and "Small Souled Men."

"At the moment, I am getting a lot of creative mileage out of doing independent movies," he says. They may not have lavish budgets or much marketing muscle behind them, but he understands how the business works.

He recalls a chat with Martin Short in which an aunt chided the "SCTV" veteran for choosing the failed comedy "Captain Ron" over films such as "Forrest Gump."

"You do what comes along. It's the timing," Mr. Pinchot says.

WHAT: "Stones in His Pockets," starring Bronson Pinchot and Tim Ruddy

WHERE: The Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater

WHEN: Feb. 4 through March 2. Call for showtimes

TICKETS: $20 to 70. Call 202/467-4600

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