The Name Game

I’ll admit I was skeptical. Starring roles in Kuffs and Hard Rain didn’t strike me as particularly strong qualifications for the rigors of acting on Broadway. But Christian Slater isn’t half bad in Side Man, the heartrending Warren Leight play now running at the Golden Theater – though I do wish he’d wipe that wily-weary smirk off his face.

I also wish that Robert Sella were still playing Slater’s role. He was originally supposed to leave Side Man for just ten weeks, in order to fill in for Cabaret’s Alan Cumming, who was off shooting a film. But the night of Sella’s first performance at the Kit Kat Klub, the casting director from Side Man poked his head into the dressing room and informed him that Slater had called. He’d seen Side Man. He wanted Sella’s part.

And that was that.

“I don’t begrudge Christian,” says Sella. “He’s done a very good job. But I have to say, I felt powerless. It was like, ‘Oh, my God – what’s our future?’

An excellent question. New York stages have been so hospitable to Hollywood royalty recently that they’ve outdone the Lincoln Bedroom: Jennifer Jason Leigh is Cabaret’s latest Sally Bowles; Nicole Kidman is drawing crowds to The Blue Room. Helen Hunt, Martin Short, Liam Neeson, Quentin Tarantino, Marisa Tomei, and Alan Alda have already logged Broadway time in the past year, and Kevin Spacey starts previews for The Iceman Cometh in late March, about six weeks after Laurence Fishburne begins performances in The Lion in Winter.

Weirder still is the number of marquee celebrities who’ve flocked to the nonprofit snuggeries of Off Broadway. In the fall, Frances McDormand played Billy Crudup’s mother in a four-and-a-half-hour production of Oedipus. Holly Hunter played a feather-brained mother-to-be in Impossible Marriage. John Turturro, Christopher Lloyd, and Tony Shalhoub performed Waiting for Godot for six weeks at the Classic Stage Company, a 180-seat space on East 13th Street with a fine reputation and a formidable debt. And last Sunday, Uma Thurman made her professional stage debut at the same address, in an adaptation of Molière’s Misanthrope.

The sheer volume of these celebrity stints probably isn’t a fluke but an augury of things to come. With film production, of both the studio and the independent varieties, booming here, more film actors are living in New York than ever before (well, the clubs are better, too).

This turn of events comes at a time when production of straight plays, particularly ones that aren’t revivals or those lacking a British imprimatur, has all but come to a halt. Even a 45-minute, two-character Harold Pinter play presents a forbidding financial risk unless undertaken within the relative security of a subscription house. The solution, many producers and artistic directors are discovering, is to cast a moll from the cover of Vanity Fair or one of People’s Sexiest Men Alive.

“Straight plays don’t have audiences anymore, unless they’re Events,” declares Margo Lion, one among the raft of producers it took to get the Pulitzer-winning Angels in America onto a Broadway stage, where it won fans and influenced people – but never earned a nickel.

It’s a simple question of economics: If a Broadway production sells out for the first twelve or sixteen weeks of the run, it can actually recover its costs and turn a small profit. Most celebrities, in turn, are delighted to take a pay cut in exchange for the challenge and the cachet of performing for an audience old enough to shave. (Spacey’s getting $1,100 per week to do Iceman.)

Unfortunately, twelve or sixteen weeks is usually all a celebrity is willing to commit to a stage project – hey, they have bills to pay – which means that most non-musicals, both now and in the future, are destined for a very short life, and most of us will never see them.

The theater Establishment has, of course, known about this simple formula for years. What makes this season unusually star-strewn is that a number of celebrities said yes simultaneously. So momentum has been building in favor of the trend: Investors are recovering their money; Kidman is purring on the cover of Newsweek. “Now that everyone has a celebrity in their show,” notes Lion, “there’s this pressure to keep having them.” Barry Edelstein, the newly appointed artistic director for Classic Stage Company, says he’s inclined to cast an A-list film star whenever he can: “If we can find somebody who’s perfect for the part, and who’s also able to bring in a lot of people – well, that’s the best of all possible worlds, isn’t it?”

James Lapine, who directed Natalie Portman last season in The Diary of Anne Frank, adds that film actors in a slump “will be inspired to do it after all the attention Nicole Kidman has gotten. It’s a real career-booster. And if they fail, no one really cares. People just think they’re brave for having tried.”

As it happens, many of these actors have considerable stage experience anyway. Spacey first performed Iceman last fall in London, and the critics collapsed in admiration. Turturro, who estimates he did more than 100 plays before turning to film, gave one of the most thrilling performances of the season – and got a slew of young people to come see Waiting for Godot. Casting film folk has also kept some really fine shows (Side Man) and productions (Cabaret) and institutions (Classic Stage Company) afloat.

The problem is when the opposite happens. Kidman sold out a play by David Hare that is, in both the literal and the metaphorical sense, only skin-deep. When Alec Baldwin and Angela Bassett starred in last spring’s Public Theater production of Macbeth, it sold out, too, despite deservedly rotten notices, including a warning from the Daily News that Baldwin sounded like John Gotti and Bassett approached Shakespeare’s prose as if she were “trying to eat a live eel.” Hunt didn’t fare much better in the Lincoln Center Theater production of Twelfth Night; John Simon declared in these pages that her interpretation of Viola was “as bad as it gets.”

During our conversation, Sella ruefully noted that Side Man is now known as “the Christian Slater play” – an irony, given that the subject is artists who work in the shadows of stars. But he also knows that Slater’s presence is keeping his colleagues employed, and it’s helping bring audiences to a real play about real people, and it may even be encouraging struggling authors to continue writing, because they know that Slater might someday want to do their plays, too.

Emanuel Azenberg, the Broadway stalwart and producer of Iceman, points out that the real trouble often begins when a celebrity leaves a show. I ask what he plans to do after Spacey’s departure. “I’m going to cry,” he says. “I’m going to ask him to stay a little longer. And then,” he concludes, “we’re going to close.”

The Name Game