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Hollywood Stars Act Up on Broadway

Shorter, smaller-scale productions draw big names

Patrick Stewart (left) and T.R. Knight star in a new Broadway production of David Mamet's 'A Life in the Theatre.'

Patrick Stewart (left) and T.R. Knight star in a new Broadway production of David Mamet's 'A Life in the Theatre.'

If last June's Tony Awards for the best on Broadway looked a little bit like Hollywood's Academy Awards, it was no accident. A lot of the winners were movie stars: Denzel Washington, Scarlett Johansson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. And there are more big stars coming to Broadway this fall, in smaller scale productions.

Last September, Broadway's hot ticket was for Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman in a one-act play called "A Steady Rain."

"When you had James Bond and Wolverine in a two-character play that was [a] terrible, terrible play...didn't matter," says Jeremy Gerard, a theater critic for Bloomberg News. "It was completely sold-out for its 12 week run, everybody made a lot of money and audiences went home happy."

Bankable stars

This fall, Broadway producers hope to duplicate that success with two star-studded revivals of intimate, short plays. Well-known TV stars Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight appear in David Mamet's "A Life in the Theatre" while film legends Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones star in the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Driving Miss Daisy."

Gerard expects Redgrave and Jones to draw big audiences.

"It's undoubtedly going to be a sell-out. If I were the producer, I'd probably be kicking up my heels," he says. "I, as a critic and an audience member, would go see those people in anything that they do."

Jed Bernstein is the producer kicking up his heels. Group sales have been brisk, even though rehearsals for "Driving Miss Daisy" have only just begun. Film legends Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones star in 'Driving Miss Daisy' this fall on Broadway.

Film legends Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones star in 'Driving Miss Daisy' this fall on Broadway.

"I think everybody got very excited about this production very, very quickly and certainly it seems that the general public has shared that excitement because the pre-ticket sales are going very well," says Bernstein.

In Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, Bernstein has not just bankable Hollywood stars - he's got two stage veterans who make it a point to come back to Broadway every few years. This time, they've both signed for a limited engagement of 16 weeks, in the first-ever Broadway staging of this three-character, one-act play.

Winning formula

Gerard, the critic, says it's one of Broadway's winning new formulas. "You've got shorter plays and you've got stars and the third thing is short runs. [The actors] come in for 12 weeks, maybe 16 weeks, including the rehearsal period, and then they're gone. First of all, it creates audience demand and the runs sell out. Second of all, they can do it between movie assignments."

For his part, Jones says much of the appeal of appearing in "Driving Miss Daisy" - apart from sharing a stage with Vanessa Redgrave - is it looks back at a period before and during the civil rights movement.

Jones well remembers being unable to use the bathroom at gas stations in the South, when he was an Army private in the 1950s. "And my line in the play is, 'Colored can't use the toilet in no Standard Oil. You know that,' he says to Miss Daisy."

Jones says the play - which was done off-Broadway with only a couple of chairs - is a short, but tasty ride.

"It is a very simple story. You might say it's a sparse meal, for theater. It doesn't have any act breaks. It just starts and then it ends."

Quick Ride

David Mamet's "A Life in the Theatre" is another quick ride: two characters, 85 minutes, a backstage comedy about a mentor/apprentice relationship between actors in a repertory theater. Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight, while well-known for their TV roles in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Grey's Anatomy, are both theater vets.

Stewart says rehearsals have been a singular experience. "I've never before in my life rehearsed a play where we will finish running a scene and then we will have a conversation pretty much exactly like the scene we've just been in, because we are in rehearsal, rehearsal for a play about two actors who are in rehearsal, all the time, for plays."

Knight, who as a very young actor was an apprentice at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre, says he can completely relate. "Well, the wonderful thing and the hateful thing about this play is how it sends our life up and, you know, how insane we are, just to do this for a living. And, just like the narcissism of the actor, it's just… so much of it is in there. And it's just, um… it's a little painful."

Staging a show on Broadway is expensive, and, Bernstein, producer of "Driving Miss Daisy," says smaller does not mean cheaper.

"I don't think you necessarily, as a producer, sit down to say, oh, you know, 'Give me one person and a stool, because that's gonna save me lots of money.' It will, I suppose save money, if you really just did have one person and a stool," he says. "But, on the one hand, if you don't have a compelling story and a compelling actor telling it, saving the money isn't going to help you, because people aren't going to want to come and see it. And you'd also be surprised how expensive one actor and stool can be - depending on who the actor is and what the stool looks like."

Both "A Life in the Theatre" and "Driving Miss Daisy" begin performances on Broadway this fall.