Most actresses greet each new birthday with trepidation. Jennifer Dundas doesn’t suffer from such a condition. Thanks to her delicate features, diminutive stature and wide-eyed gaze, the 37-year-old has always been cast in parts years younger than her actual age. So when she was offered thirtysomething Lenny in “Crimes of the Heart,” playing now at the Laura Pels Theatre, she was elated.
“I was kind of shocked. It came out of nowhere,” says Dundas. “At least in New York, I haven’t felt that I’ve been able to come into an adult role.”
But in Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Dundas has found a salve for her growing pains. Set in 1974, the play follows the Macgrath sisters, Lenny (Dundas), Meg (Sarah Paulson) and Babe (Lily Rabe) as they gather at their grandfather’s Southern estate to deal with a family crisis — Babe has just taken a shotgun to her abusive husband. As Lenny, Dundas is the eldest of the three and has forsaken her personal and love life to take care of their ailing grandfather and hold down the fort. She is at once lovably neurotic and the source of her sisters’ pity.
“Her relationship to men is completely stunted. She doesn’t have any experience,” remarks Dundas. “And you want to make sure that you as a character don’t feel sorry for yourself because then you really won’t get any empathy from the audience.”
“Crimes of the Heart” had a run at Williamstown, Mass., last summer before its current Roundabout Theatre Company production. And it was there that Dundas first encountered her formidable director, Kathleen Turner.
“I got to rehearsals on the first day and Kathleen just said, ‘My, you’re a little tiny thing, aren’t you?'” recalls Dundas, impersonating Turner’s deep voice. “So I just looked right at her and said, ‘On the outside.'”
And she makes no bones about Turner’s directorial style. “Kathleen is no-nonsense. She’s kind of like a drill sergeant. There was no coddling of any kind,” she says. “If she thinks what you’re doing isn’t right, she’ll just say, ‘What the f–k are you doing?’ So that took a little getting used to.”
Fortunately, Dundas is accustomed to the other rigors of theater. Raised in Newton, Mass., she made her Broadway debut at age 10 in Jules Feiffer’s “Grown Ups” after a casting director took notice of her at day camp. She spent the rest of her childhood doing play and movie work, majored in drama at Brown University and starred in the original production of “Arcadia” straight out of college. Since then, she has dabbled in film (she was Diane Keaton’s daughter in “The First Wives Club”), but has mainly stuck with her first love.
These days, however, she’s found a second passion: Dundas recently opened Blue Marble Ice Cream in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, with her friend, Alexis Miesen. The store boasts eco-friendly packaging, organic and hormone-free dairy from local producers and equally socially conscious tea, coffee and chocolate.
“I like doing two things at once. When I started doing the ice-cream shop, it just felt so good. I can go into the shop during the day and then go to the play at night,” muses Dundas.
Though she does admit some of that energy could just as easily have gone into her romantic life. “I always had acting and I had boys. I was married at one point, then I was with another guy for a few years after I was divorced, and not having that thing in addition to acting, it was making me insane. I need someone else to focus on,” she says. “So now all I have to do is find a boy, because I do like having sex.”