Broadway Theater Comes to TV


Thursday, October 5th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


NEW YORK (AP) — Here's one way to look at it: Just by tuning in, you save $70. That's the price of a ticket to ``The Man Who Came to Dinner'' in its current Broadway run. Plus, you'd have to pay for parking.

So park yourself in front of your TV Saturday night and share this comic romp right along with its sold-out house on 42nd Street. Airing live on PBS at 8 p.m. EDT, ``The Man Who Came to Dinner'' is an uproarious good time starring Nathan Lane, Jean Smart and a splendid cast of 21 more.

And, unlike ticket-holders at the American Airlines Theatre, you'll have plenty of legroom.

The broadcast captures the next-to-last performance of this acclaimed revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company. And it marks the debut of ``Stage on Screen,'' a series of classic and contemporary drama from Thirteen/WNET.

``The Man Who Came to Dinner'' introduces you to Sheridan Whiteside (Lane), a critic, radio personality, sharp-tongued bon vivant and high priest of the 1930s smart set.

After dining with a prominent family in tiny Mesalia, Ohio, during a cross-country lecture tour, Whiteside has slipped on his hosts' doorstep and injured his hip. Stuck in their home during six weeks of convalescence, the irascible Whiteside commandeers the premises and, from his wheelchair, plays ringmaster to colorful visitors and zany situations that turn the household upside down.

One Whiteside scheme requires the charms of his pal Lorraine Sheldon (a hilarious portrayal by Jean Smart of TV's ``Designing Women,'' who took a night off in September to pick up her Emmy for a ``Frasier'' guest performance). A glamorous movie star, Lorraine is summoned from Europe by Whiteside for what becomes a wild goose chase.

Written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, ``The Man Who Came to Dinner'' was a smash when it premiered just a couple of blocks away and 61 years ago almost to the night.

Saturday you'll see why: Both urbane and madcap, it embodies a comedic style that, with TV's arrival a decade hence, sitcoms would be aping for the next half-century.

Indeed, Whiteside shares a key trait of sitcom heroes: a taste for insult humor, with his nurse a favorite target.

He calls her ``Miss Bed Pan,'' banishes her by saying, ``Don't stand there, Miss Preen — you look like a frozen custard,'' and declares that when his 100-year-old great-aunt had been dead three days, ``she looked better than you do now.'' (Shades of Drew and Mimi, Hawkeye and Frank, Buddy and Mel!)

All in all, the play translates well to TV, says ``Stage on Screen'' producer Judy Kinberg.

``Television is all about the close-up,'' she notes, ``and you can use that in comedy to tremendous advantage. It gives viewers an advantage that you don't have sitting in the theater.''

The trick is for the cameras (10 of them) to stay on top of the antics. Kinberg and her team are taping several earlier performances, then analyzing each test to fine-tune camera angles and placement. And choosing the shots is a veteran of TV comedy, director Jay Sandrich, winner of two Emmys for ``The Mary Tyler Moore Show'' and another for NBC's ``The Cosby Show.''

But when airtime arrives, count on seeing more than what's onstage.

Before the curtain, you'll get an introduction to the play and its era, with a refresher on the names that Whiteside drops (a prewar ``who's who'' ranging from Oscar Wilde and Mahatma Gandhi to movie queen Katharine Cornell).

Then, during the two intermissions, you won't have to sit leafing through your program. Each break will feature interviews including Kitty Carlisle Hart (widow of Moss Hart) and Anne Kaufman (daughter of George S. Kaufman), as well as the production's director, Jerry Zaks, and set designer Tony Walton.

Emcees for the evening: Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson.

Broadway theater broadcast live is highly unusual. But it's par for the course for Jac Venza, ``Stage on Screen'' executive producer as well as director of cultural and arts programs for Thirteen/WNET.

A public-TV pioneer going back nearly four decades, Venza counts among his creations ``Great Performances,'' now observing a quarter-century as a prime TV venue for the performing arts.

``For us, `Stage on Screen' isn't new, but a continuity,'' he says.

The series' 2000-2001 season will continue with adaptations of A.R. Gurney's ``Far East,'' produced off-Broadway last year by New York's Lincoln Center Theater, and Anna Deavere Smith's ``Twilight: Los Angeles,'' as well as two selections from Thirteen's drama archives.

A formidable lineup. ``But these productions won't all be just uplifting,'' says Venza, smiling as he looks ahead to Saturday's tomfoolery. ``You might also be entertained.''

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On the Net:

http://www.curtainup.com/manwhocametodinner.html

http://www.nytheatre.com/nytheatre/man—who.htm

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Elsewhere in television ...

`GILMORE GIRLS': Now 32, Lorelai Gilmore got ``knocked up'' (her words) at 16. The daughter of old-money, old-fashioned parents, Lorelai (played by Lauren Graham) went out on her own after finding she was pregnant. She worked her way up from maid to managing a lovely Connecticut inn. Now her child Rory (Alexis Bledel) is 16 and imbued with the same independent spirit. Generation gap? They never heard of it. ``Gilmore Girls'' is a delightful frolic with two young women who are best buds, even sisters — yet, most important, mother and daughter. It premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. EDT on the WB.

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Frazier Moore can be reached at fmooreap.org