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'Three's Company' star Joyce DeWitt makes NY debut

It has taken a long time, but Joyce DeWitt is finally doing what she always wanted to do: Make her stage debut in New York.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It has taken a long time, but Joyce DeWitt is finally doing what she always wanted to do: Make her stage debut in New York.

"I know, isn't it a hoot?" the former "Three's Company" star asks with glee a few hours before hitting the boards one recent afternoon. "This is where I was headed and then I got sidetracked in Holly-weird and one thing happened after another."

Her theater is modest: It's off-Broadway, underneath a restaurant, beside a bar and the audience sits on folded seats. But it's near Times Square and she's the star. Plus, DeWitt is still making people laugh.

"I'm just a late bloomer," says the 62-year-old actress, though she retains an impish adorableness and is prone to say "gee-willikers" or "wow-ski" rather than swear. "It took me a long time to have confidence in my work."

DeWitt has stepped into the title role of "Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating & Marriage!" — a 90-minute comedy being staged at Sofia's Downstairs Theater on 46th Street.

As Miss Abigail, DeWitt presents dating tips from her extensive library of decades-old etiquette and advice books, earnestly believing that good grooming and hygiene are still the basis of any successful relationship. With help from an assistant, Paco, who secretly adores Miss Abigail, she calls people onstage to help with quizzes, play little games and help demonstrate improbable dating tools.

"This show does something very similar to 'Three's Company' in the sense that it allows us to play and be silly and funny and laugh about interactions of human beings," DeWitt says. "The fact that the purpose of the play was to make people laugh and let them have a good time and every once in a while touch their hearts is my favorite kind of play to do."

In a weird twist of fate, the ex-"Three's Company" star took over the role from another 1980s icon — Eve Plumb, who played Jan, the middle sister, in "The Brady Bunch." DeWitt, who had never met Plumb, came to see the show before agreeing to jump aboard.

"She was so good in the role that I was a bit intimidated," says DeWitt. "It was a little more sophisticated — a little more grown-up-y — when Eve did it. The version I'm bringing to it is a little more playful and off-the-wall."

Sarah Saltzberg, an actress and producer who co-authored the play with Ken Davenport, says it has been an absolute trip watching DeWitt perform dialogue aloud onstage that she wrote.

"She's a really kind and sweet person," says Saltzberg, who watched "Three's Company" as a kid. "We're not doing Chekhov here. We're not doing Shakespeare. We're just trying for an hour-and-a-half each night to bring people some joy and she's exceptionally good at that."

Indiana-raised Dewitt, who has been working onstage since she was 13, was intent on a life in New York theater after graduating from Ball State University in 1972, but was lured to UCLA and a few years later was cast in her biggest role to date: Janet Wood opposite John Ritter and Suzanne Somers in "Three's Company" from 1977 to 1984.

For her, it was like a Moliere farce — a show filled with sexual innuendo, miscommunications and identity confusion. She is good-natured about the show's outsized legacy, even though she likes to point out that she's also played Madea three times.

"Does it bother me that I'm attached to 'Three's Company' 30 years after? Not at all," says DeWitt. "All we were trying to do was be funny. How can I complain? That's all I wanted to do."

The show has also helped her visibility in projects to combat hunger and homelessness. DeWitt has hosted such events as 1987's Presidential End Hunger Awards in Washington and the Capitol Hill Forum on Hunger and Homelessness.

Although she still gets regular checks from the TV show, the residuals aren't exactly huge. "It wouldn't pay my light bill. But, on the other hand, it fills my heart with light because if, as an actor, you have the opportunity to do something that creates joy and causes laughter, that's a gift. And if 35 years later, it's still doing that? That's just a fantasy you can't even make up."

DeWitt took more than a decade off from acting after "Three's Company," traveling and studying world religions. She now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., relishing that state's thin atmosphere and stunning sunsets.

Only recently has she thrown herself back into acting full time, most recently the Canadian premieres of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Dinner With Friends" and Alfred Uhry's "The Last Night of Ballyhoo."

In many ways, today she is following the advice from the theme song of "Three's Company" — "Take a step that is new." She's finally made it to a Manhattan stage, was just asked to ring the Nasdaq closing bell ("Math was not my forte, so that they wanted me there was kind of hysterical") and she just got her first computer.

One message she still needs to send is to Robin Williams, who is also making his New York stage debut, in "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," on the other side of 46th Street. He and DeWitt are old friends from the days when "Mork & Mindy" taped in a studio near "Three's Company."

"I haven't yet had time to write him a note and go, 'Robin, I'm across the street in a basement. Would you like to have tea after the show one night?'" DeWitt says, laughing.