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Why Actresses Are in Love With 'Babbitt'

November 22, 1987|DENNIS McDOUGAL

Bimbettes, somebody's love interest, maybe an occasional murderess. . . .

There just aren't that many terrific roles for women.

"Do there have to be good parts for women?" asked Ed Begley Jr. "There's always makeup and props. . . ."

"There's also the possibility that tomorrow morning's newspaper could read, 'Begley Found Dead,' " threatened actress Georgia Brown.

It was one of the regular Thursday night meetings of an 18-month-old all-star radio troupe called Los Angeles Classic Theatre Works. Its members were toasting each other for wrapping up Sinclair Lewis' "Babbitt," which does have a healthy roster of women's roles. Almost half of the 34 members of the troupe are women. "Babbitt" gets its public premiere Thanksgiving Day in a 14 1/2-hour broadcast over KCRW-FM (89.9).

Beginning at 8 a.m., KCRW will air Lewis' entire 319-page portrait of George F. Babbitt. Except for station identifications and a 1 1/2-hour break at 5 p.m. for the National Public Radio newsmagazine "All Things Considered," the Santa Monica City College radio station will do nothing but recount the tale of the conniving 1920s middle-class real estate developer from the fictitious Midwestern town of Zenith.

But when discussion turned to the next two productions the troupe will be dramatizing for the British Broadcasting Corp. in March and April, talk drifted back to the Female Roles Problem.

Brown took another drag off her Marlboro Light and suggested they do "The Crucible." There are several meaty women's roles there.

JoBeth Williams tugged her denim miniskirt down to mid-thigh and suggested a reading of "Lysistrata" or "The Trojan Women." Maybe an all-female Japanese play.

"They have those transvestite productions, you know?" she said.

Ed Asner, who played the title role in "Babbitt," pointed out the obvious about the play that the majority of the troupe most wanted to do as a "Babbitt" encore, "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been." There are no women.

The Eric Bentley play about the House Committee on Un-American Activities' investigation of Hollywood has a single cameo role for playwright Lillian Hellman. All the rest of the roles are for men.

"But it would be perfect for radio," said Michael York.

"It has to be all men?" asked Begley.

"Can't some of the women be investigators?" asked Ally Sheedy.

No, went the round-table discussion. Not if the integrity of the play is to be preserved.

So what about Shakespeare?

"There is no Shakespeare play with more than six women's roles, except for 'The Merry Wives of Windsor,' " said JoBeth Williams.

And "Macbeth"?

"If we do that, 64,000 women will show up to audition for the role (of Lady Macbeth)," said Georgia Brown.

Laughter.

They'll show up hours early, said Begley.

Laughter.

In Winnebagos with full entourage, said David Selby.

Laughter.

And agents, negotiating for the role.

More laughter.

"And Asner'll wind up getting the part," said Brown.

"Lady McBabbitt"? said Selby.

No laughter.

There has always been a tug of war over women's roles and minorities' roles, roles for older actors and roles (other than simplistic ingenue parts) for young actors. The ugly truth in the acting biz is that all the very best roles seem to have been written by white adult males for white adult males.

But the sheer glut of actors trying to break into show biz has always made Hollywood a buyer's market, so the niceties of too few or too many roles for women or children or senior citizens rarely come up at cattle calls.

Actors don't cooperate. They compete. Even if they have an agent, a personal manager and a Winnebago on the set.

"Pulling people like this together who are really at the top of their profession is really a tricky business," said Los Angeles Classic Theatre Works producer Susan Loewenberg. "There's expectation, anticipation and fear."

Loewenberg said that taping "Babbitt" took 15 months. Some of the actors had projects and were off on location. Individual roles were recorded when a member of the troupe could come in for a session. A computer was used to keep track of the tapes and to help edit it all together.

Normally, democracy among actors in Hollywood is as unlikely as table manners among vampires. That Loewenberg's experiment in radio repertory has survived for 18 months and two major productions, she says with some pride, is nothing less than a minor miracle.

From time to time established film and TV actors who want to be taken "seriously" will form or join a repertory group, but they never seem to last. Most usually fall apart before they have staged a single production--victims of the actors' movie commitments or TV commercials or backstage ego battles. Sometimes the harsh reality of lavish staging costs and too little money kills a show before it gets to dress rehearsal.

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