Alan Rosenberg and Marg Helgenberger know playwright A.R. Gurney is perhaps the quintessential chronicler of WASP American life. So why are the Jewish actor and his lapsed Catholic TV-star wife performing Gurney's "Love Letters" June 9 at the Skirball Cultural Center to benefit West L.A. congregation Adat Shalom?
"It's a bit odd," says the willowy Helgenberger, 43, who's on the CBS smash hit "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."
"But theater is the purview of Jews more than any other group," pipes up Rosenberg ("The Guardian"). "So the play wouldn't have been successful if Jews hadn't gone to see it."
The acclaimed 1989 drama is among the earliest in a trend of hits, such as "The Vagina Monologues," which are performed as staged readings by an ever-changing cast of celebrities. Gurney's two-character play describes a half century of mostly unrequited love between childhood sweethearts of stuffy New England stock.
The actors -- and their love story -- couldn't be more different. Helgenberger, of North Bend, Neb., won an Emmy for playing a cynical hooker on "China Beach" and Oscar buzz for her turn as a cancer victim in "Erin Brockovich." Now a cheeky forensic detective on "CSI," she recently made People's "50 Most Beautiful People List."
Rosenberg, who grew up Conservative in Passaic, N.J., is perhaps best-known for portraying menschy Eli Levinson on "L.A. Law" and dying heart patient Sam Gasner on "E.R." "Almost every character I've played in the past decade has been a Jewish guy with a three-letter name," the Emmy nominee says during an interview at the couple's Spanish-style Santa Monica home. Now a children's legal advocate on "The Guardian," he was once dubbed "the thinking woman's sex symbol" by the Los Angeles Times.
When Helgenberger laughs heartily at this one, he wryly says, "I don't know if she's laughing at the 'thinking' part or the 'sex symbol' part."
Rosenberg, 51, says he decided to pursue acting "to effect social and political change" while protesting the Vietnam War at Case Western Reserve University. But another college passion -- poker -- led him to gamble away most of the money his parents had sent him to apply to graduate school. Almost broke, he could afford just one application, to the highly selective Yale School of Drama, and was relieved to get in. But he dropped out halfway through his second year, after his heart was broken by classmate Meryl Streep.
A decade later, he met Helgenberger in New York while guest-starring on her soap, "Ryan's Hope. "I thought she was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen," recalls Rosenberg, who was married at the time. "And really talented."
The two conversed for hours between shots on the motel-room set. "I thought Alan was very cute, very sweet and very talented," says the actress, who'd been plucked from a Northwestern University play to star in the soap.
Four years later, the newly divorced Rosenberg walked into a West Hollywood bank and spotted Helgenberger in line. "I didn't think she would remember me," he says, but she did, and agreed to exchange telephone numbers. "I was too nervous to call her for a couple days, then she actually called me," Rosenberg recalls. He considered renting a car rather than take her out in his moldy Bonneville convertible. But he need not have worried. Within two months the actors were living together, though they eloped in 1989 to avoid upsetting a Jewish relative. Their son, Hugh, was born the following year.
In 1992, their happy family life was shattered when Rosenberg's brother, Mark, a 44-year-old film executive, died of a heart attack (Helgenberger, who was on location in New Zealand, flew home for the shiva). "My shrink suggested I go to synagogue to deal with the tragedy," says Rosenberg, who attended Mishkon Tephilo but switched to Adat Shalom when his son, Hugh, was ready to begin religious school. "One of Hughie's best friends was going there, and we didn't want to send him off to Hebrew school all by himself," says the actor, who's now on the shul's board. Rosenberg and Helgenberger, who are raising Hugh Jewish, have just set a date for his bar mitzvah.
One reason they've undertaken the "Love Letters" benefit: "The synagogue has been incredibly welcoming to us," he says.
For information about the benefit June 9, 7 p.m., call (310) 475-4985 or (310) 440-4500.