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Broadway Marquee Increasingly Lit by Stars of the Screen

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

NEW YORK -- Tony Soprano plays well with others. Extremely well. In his shrewdly planned, post-"Sopranos" return to the limelight, James Gandolfini now shows up on Broadway as a brownstone Brooklyn boy in the abrasively funny, tautly directed new comedy, "God of Carnage."

With him in this yuppie-saturated romper room out of the imagination of Yasmina Reza ("Art") are three other exquisitely well-cast actors: Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and Jeff Daniels. From prior encounters, we knew that his co-stars had the stage chops to play at this level. Did Gandolfini? On the basis of his performance as a placid Everyguy reduced to caveman ranting, the answer's an exuberant "absolutely."

Broadway's the happening place for stars like Gandolfini with a yen to moonlight. And the trend is accelerating. It's becoming ever rarer for a straight play to arrive without a brand-name eminence. This spring has yielded the most crowded field in memory. Jane Fonda in "33 Variations." Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen in "Impressionism." Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon in "Exit the King." Rupert Everett and Angela Lansbury in "Blithe Spirit." All this wattage comes on top of a fall in which Katie Holmes materialized in a play by Arthur Miller; Daniel Radcliffe emoted in the altogether in "Equus" and the mercury-poisoned Jeremy Piven struggled nobly for the energy to get through all three scenes and 85 minutes of David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow."

More and more, actors who've made their names in TV and movies turn up -- maybe to prove their success is not a function of crafty camera work. Or because producers know their fame translates into dollars. Or because they've got an opening on their movie calendar. Or the movie roles are drying up. Or they live in New York. Or hey -- they just want to act.

Part of this is pure economics. Thanks to the downturn and the huge expense of bringing in a new musical, more Broadway theaters are available this year than usual for drama and comedy; the Shubert Theatre -- until recently home to the Tony-winning musical "Spamalot" -- now features a revival of Noël Coward's wan "Blithe Spirit." While the works attract performers with both meaty theater résumés (Irons, Allen, Rush) and paltry ones (Sarandon, Holmes, Radcliffe), the reality often appears to be that the star's the thing, more than the play.

Celebrity casting is not new: Back in 1988, the trio of actors in the original "Speed-the-Plow" included one by the name of Madonna. But the somewhat knee-jerk manner in which dramas are being marketed as star vehicles is picking up speed. It's interesting to note, for example, that when playwright Moisés Kaufman's "33 Variations" began life at Arena Stage two years ago, the lead role of the dying musicologist was portrayed by the experienced stage actress Mary Beth Peil. In a mirror of how Hollywood typically revs up the electricity when a play becomes a movie, the musicologist's role on Broadway went to Fonda. (It's also important to point out that a play such as "33 Variations" -- tepidly received both in Washington and on Broadway -- might not even have found the financing for Broadway without the interest of a Jane Fonda.)

There's no denying the intense curiosity value in watching a star work for your applause. And lenient Broadway audiences will stand up to cheer for just about anything -- but that's another story. In "Blithe Spirit," "Exit the King" and "God of Carnage," you get illustrations of the degrees of gratification such opportunities provide. One can practically hear, for instance, the joints of "Blithe Spirit" creaking as the cast's well-known members -- who also include Christine Ebersole as a ghost from Everett's character's past -- try to sustain the funny business even after the plot's mirth potential dissipates.

The sentimental favorite is the octogenarian Lansbury, portraying a shabby English mystic whose conjuring of the dead triggers migraines for the living. The joy that this actress takes in her job is infectious, and in the end, who wants to spoil Angela Lansbury's good time? So we bear up under the mechanics of Michael Blakemore's stuffy direction, and stick gamely, rather than eagerly, with this second-tier Coward comedy.

The dexterous Rush begs an audience's indulgence, too, in "Exit the King," an attenuated Eugène Ionesco play about a 400-year-old sovereign who faces his mortality with wails, stamping of feet and other varieties of histrionics. Rush comes up with some dandy antics: His rubbery physicality, a chip off Bill Irwin's block, was never so apparent in such films as "Shine" and "Shakespeare in Love."

The portrayal is one of the more watchable workouts on Broadway, even if the exertions of his co-stars -- among them, Lauren Ambrose and Andrea Martin -- are largely devoted to supporting a wheezing vehicle. Sarandon, who manages to make sense of her lines if not her queenly character, doesn't stand much of a chance. You leave with a wistful image in your head of the magnetic Rush -- on other stages.

The stars in "God of Carnage," meanwhile, gleefully manage to capitalize on every juicy bit of bad behavior in Reza's mostly reliable farce, set in the Cobble Hill home of Gandolfini's Michael and Harden's Veronica. They are hosting crude lawyer Alan (Daniels) and his skittish wife Annette (Davis) in order to talk out the schoolyard altercation between their 11-year-old sons that left one of them with broken teeth.

Reza's contemporary comedies hold looking glasses up to the upper-middle-class patrons of Broadway; they explore primitive instincts muted by money and urbanity. Relations break down along every interpersonal axis in "Carnage's" sleek living room, whose rugged stone wall conjures an age when men in animal skins carved wildlife drawings on them.

Under Matthew Warchus's superb direction, the actors poke and jab and duck for cover. They're all in tip-top shape. Singling out Gandolfini is not meant to diminish the work of anyone else. The most flattering way to characterize the performance of this star is to point out that its impact is indistinguishable from that of the others.

God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Set and costumes, Mark Thompson; lighting, Hugh Vanstone; music, Gary Yershon. About 90 minutes. At Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St.

Exit the King, by Eugène Ionesco. Directed by Neil Armfield. Sets and costumes, Dale Ferguson; lighting, Damien Cooper; sound, Russell Goldsmith; composer, John Rodgers. About 2 hours 20 minutes. At Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St.

Blithe Spirit, by Noël Coward. Directed by Michael Blakemore. Set, Peter J. Davison; costumes, Martin Pakledinaz; lighting, Brian MacDevitt. About 2 1/2 hours. At Sam S. Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St.

For tickets to all three: Call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com.

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