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Fall Preview: Theater / Born In The U.S.A.

As the British spectacles finally close up shop, Broadway raises the curtain on the most American season in memory (Sorry, Grizabella): From Cats -- to that Cat in the Hat.

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It was one of the early sallies in the British invasion of Broadway, and a fairly nasty one at that: In the spring of 1975, a freaky troupe of Londoners transformed the Belasco Theatre into the seedy movie-palace mise-en-scène of The Rocky Horror Show. The Horror made a star of Tim Curry, who appeared in both stage versions and, of course, the movie, which has owned the graveyard shift for years at various Greenwich Village theaters. But New York sent the live show packing after less than a month.

Twenty-five years later -- a quarter-century in which Broadway's biggest houses were stocked with endlessly running London-born musicals -- The Rocky Horror Show is set to make its big comeback, with a hilariously diverse cast that includes rock star Joan Jett, Rent legend Daphne Rubin-Vega, comedian Lea De Laria, and talk-show host-cum-motel flack Dick Cavett. Rocky II arrives, however, just as night engulfs the final sunset rays of the British colonization. Cats, after seventeen years, ascends into the Heavy-Side Layer on September 10, and Miss Saigon will follow, by helicopter no doubt, on New Year's Eve. The Phantom of the Opera may take its place alongside the new Madame Tussaud's as an inextinguishable import for the tourist trade, but that's unlikely to be the case for Les Miz, and a revival of Jesus Christ Superstar has closed after limping along on cut-rate tickets.

Indeed, this fall, shows made in America rule Broadway. In October, the late, Springfield, Massachusetts-born Theodor Geisel makes his long-overdue debut at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. This, of course, would be Seussical, an inspired name for a show based on the characters created by Geisel's doppelgänger, Dr. Seuss, who brought literacy and an acute sense of justice to generations of pre-Sesame Street kids. In the works for several years, it's already being touted as the next Lion King. Among other things, it's the show in which Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the composer and lyricist of Ragtime, finally loosen up (you sing "I will not eat green eggs and ham" without cracking up); contributing to the ballyhoo is the equally inspired casting of New Vaudeville clown David Shiner as the Cat in the Hat.

Playwright Terrence McNally, who wrote the book for Ragtime, also gets to loosen up a bit with the season's other big musical, The Full Monty, later this month at the Eugene O'Neill. You know that The Full Monty began life in 1997 as a charming British film about a group of downsized Sheffield steelworkers who find local fame and some small fortune baring all in a strip club. The story has been transferred to Buffalo and set to music and lyrics by newcomer David Yazbek, whose claim to fame is the theme song from Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego? Speaking of which, when The Full Monty had its tryout in June at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, the L.A. Times's astute theater critic, Michael Phillips, pronounced it "all beefcake, all the time . . . dressed up, and down, and then further down, as a raucous, uneven, trashy, highly entertaining musical comedy with the aura of a hit."

And, as if the show needed any more publicity, Buffalo congressman Jack Quinn has already denounced The Full Monty for its "incorrect and irresponsible" portrait of the city. Lighten up, Congressman. Buffalo's been taking it on the chin for so long that The Full Monty stands a chance of displacing the city's most famous dis, from native son Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line, in which a character laments that "committing suicide in Buffalo is redundant."

That crack was written for Bennett by his unlikely (and uncredited) fixer on the show, Neil Simon. Broadway's most prolific contributor for 40 years has himself been taking it on the chin with some of his recent theatrical forays, but Simon returns this fall with The Dinner Party, a play -- like nearly all of his recent work, it's a comedy of terrors, this one set in a French restaurant -- whose out-of-town tryout has won him praise from unexpected quarters. Party, at the Music Box, pairs two lover-boy icons from the past: Happy Days' Fonzie, Henry Winkler, and John Ritter, Three's Company's Jack Tripper, both now well into middle age -- prime Simon territory.

Around the time Neil Simon first began blowing his horn on Broadway, Gore Vidal was enjoying no little success with The Best Man, his Kennedy-era political drama about a battle for the presidential nomination. With something like perfect timing, that play returns (now called, in the manner of a Jacqueline Susann miniseries, Gore Vidal's The Best Man), at the Virginia, in a revival headed by a more contemporary male TV icon, Sex and the City's Mr. Big, Chris Noth. It's hard to predict whether the timing is good or bad for Lily Tomlin's return to Broadway, but anyone who recalls The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, her ferociously funny yet deeply felt tour of seventies culture, counterculture, and anti-counterculture, will welcome its return beginning at the Booth, with an assurance of only minor updating promised by author Jane Wagner.

And there are more Broadway veterans coming: Linda Lavin, Tony Roberts, and Michele Lee star in Charles Busch's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, at the Barrymore; Lavin plays a middle-aged Upper West Side denizen visited by a Mysterious Stranger . . . well, you'll have to see it to find out what happens.

To bring this jingoistic celebration of the demise of British theatrical hegemony (at least until the winter solstice) full circle, consider Proof, which, like Allergist's Wife, was born last season at the Manhattan Theatre Club and moves to the Walter Kerr in October. David Auburn's play -- one for which words like engrossing, haunting, and exhilarating were invented so that critics might abuse them -- concerns Catherine, an emotionally shell-shocked math prodigy. Her father, a genius she's dropped out of life to care for in his final, increasingly inchoate years, has just died; a former student of his combs through the incoherent papers in his study until he comes upon something akin in importance to the ontological argument for the existence of God, only with a lot of numbers and letters and postgraduate-type hieroglyphics thrown in.

Given its subject, Proof is likely to vie for the same audience attending Michael Frayn's celebrated Copenhagen, whose concern is quantum physics, the creation of the atom bomb, good versus evil -- and herein lies a case study in the contrast between British and American approaches to highfalutin drama. Copenhagen, which won the Tony award last season, recounts a meeting between two once-close scientists now on opposite sides of the Anschluss. They spend a ton of time speaking the language of science, and a little less time talking about the Holocaust, a dead child, old times. This can be thrilling, but a charge often leveled against such plays -- as with those of Tom Stoppard and David Hare, not to mention George Bernard Shaw -- is that they're too much brain and too little heart.

Proof, on the other hand, is more in the tradition of the plays of Lanford Wilson and Michael Weller. While a larger subject -- in this case, authorship of the mathematical proof -- inspires the play, its exceptional power lies in its evocation of the relationship between daughter and father (in this case played unforgettably by Mary-Louise Parker and Larry Bryggman). When we think of the great American playwrights, we think of Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill and Lillian Hellman, in earlier generations; Wendy Wasserstein and Tony Kushner, Jon Robin Baitz and Donald Margulies today: They are always writing about big ideas and wrapping them in family squabbles that get us where we live. Welcome David Auburn to the club. Proof is the one you won't want to miss this fall.


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