Before Debra Jo Rupp began rehearsals for the New Theatre Restaurant’s latest play, she had visited Kansas City only once before — on a family road trip from Massachusetts to California with her two sisters in the back of a classic station wagon.
Rupp, stuck in the middle backseat and “not the most loveliest of preteens,” found the trip to be, understandably, horrible and remembers nothing about driving through Kansas City.
Now the actress — best known for “That ’70s Show” — says she’s found her current stay to be a surprising and much more enjoyable time.
“Kansas City is kind of, to me, Middle America, corn, kind of slow moving and apple pie — and I am really, really shocked at how sophisticated it is,” she said. “I mean, I’m right next to a mall that has stores I don’t even know. … It’s really lovely, and I’m quite happy.”
She’ll have more than a drive-through stay in the city this time as she stars in the New Theatre’s production of “Boeing-Boeing,” running through April 23. In this slamming-doors farce, she plays Bertha, the housekeeper who helps her businessman boss try to keep straight his affairs with three stewardesses.
French playwright Marc Camoletti wrote the comedy in 1960, and it eventually became a 1965 movie starring Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis. A 2008 Broadway revival won two Tony Awards, and coincidentally, the New Theatre also presented a production that year starring Marla Gibbs of “The Jeffersons.”
This new production, directed by New Theatre co-owner Dennis Hennessy, also features four local New Theatre regulars — Craig Benton (who starred in the theater’s previous version), Jessalyn Kincaid, Seth Macchi and Ashley Pankow — along with New York import Ashton Heyl.
Rupp said she had always wanted to perform in “Boeing-Boeing” but was not able to audition for the Broadway revival. When her agent approached her about the New Theatre’s production, she came on board with no hesitation.
“When you get to a certain age, eventually people are going to stop asking, so if it’s something that I really want to do and that appeals to me, I don’t see a reason to say no,” she said.
In what she calls a backward way into an acting career, Rupp didn’t even make it to Hollywood until her 40s. She started in theater; she acted in New York for 17 years with a bookkeeping day job to help pay the bills. Eventually, she moved out west, where she got steady work on iconic sitcoms. She had recurring roles as the sister-in-law of Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) on “Friends,” and she played Jerry Seinfeld’s booking agent on “Seinfeld.”
And then came “That ’70s Show” and her role as Kitty Forman, the woman everyone wanted to be their own mom, surrounded by “teenagers” Topher Grace (who played her son), Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Wilmer Valderrama. Those eight seasons finally provided the stability she had always craved in her career.
“I didn’t come from money, I didn’t go to an acting school, so I kind of had to do it on my own,” she said. “When I got to Broadway, I realized the salary was not going to work for the kind of security I needed. Why I went into acting, I don’t know, because I really need security.
“ ‘That ’70’s Show’ changed my life because it has given me enormous freedom and, at the same time, it’s given me complete and total security,” she said. “I had to work so hard to get there, and that was the one thing: I didn’t give up.”
Part of that freedom gives Rupp the ability to return to her true love — theater — while still balancing her other artistic interests. In addition to her role at the New Theatre, she has a recurring role on the Netflix comedy “The Ranch” and will return to Los Angeles this summer to act in a new play, “The Cake” by Bekah Brunstetter.
“I’ve always loved theater; it’s always been my favorite thing,” Rupp said. “The plan was always to go to California and make enough money to buy a home and a car — that’s all I required in life — and then come back and do what I’d always wanted to do.”
▪ “Dutchman,” presented by the KC MeltingPot Theatre, Friday through March 4 at the Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central. In an examination of racial tensions in the 1960s, a middle-class black man on a subway copes with stereotypes after a white woman strikes up a conversation with him. See KCMeltingPot.com.
▪ “No Talking,” Feb. 21 through March 19 at the Coterie Theatre. Inspired by Gandhi’s pledge of silence one day a week, a fifth-grade class holds a contest to see who can talk the least. See TheCoterie.org.
▪ “Julius Caesar” and “X: Or, Betty Shabazz vs. The Nation,” presented by UMKC Theatre in partnership with the touring Acting Company, Feb. 21-23 at Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry St. Julius Caesar and Malcolm X: Two towering leaders brought down by assassination. The former is examined in the Shakespeare classic, the latter in a new play by Marcus Gardley. The plays are presented in repertory. See UMKC.edu.