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THEATER : Generation Veneration : The stage is far more enamored of older actresses than Hollywood is, the more tenacious and outsized the personality the better. Case in point: the current New York theater scene.

December 17, 1995|Laurie Winer | Laurie Winer is The Times' theater critic

NEW YORK — Julie Andrews is back on Broadway after 30 years. Her comeback vehicle, "Victor/Victoria," is a lackluster musical, but it is a standing-room-only lackluster musical. Carol Burnett is also back on the boards after an almost-30-year absence. Her show, the Ken Ludwig comedy "Moon Over Buffalo," is no more substantive than an episode of the star's old TV show, but the fans are coming in busloads. Off Broadway, "Mrs. Klein," the story of a famous psychoanalyst and her daughter, is breaking house records at the Lucille Lortel. People are lining up to see Uta Hagen, who, at 76, is making a rare appearance in Nicholas Wright's absorbing psychological drama.

In the East they're calling it the Year of the Divas. Andrews, Burnett and Hagen are joined on New York stages this fall by Carol Channing, still vamping on the orchestra runway in "Hello, Dolly!" exactly as she did 31 years ago when she created the role. People are flocking to see Zoe Caldwell repeat her Los Angeles triumph as Maria Callas in Terrence McNally's "Master Class"; the show recouped its investment in a month.

It's too late to see Ellen Burstyn play a crusading nun (the poorly reviewed "Sacrilege" closed last month) or Elizabeth Ashley in two Tennessee Williams one-acts, but if you're going to New York for the holidays you can still catch Blythe Danner, Eileen Heckart, Anne Meara, Rita Moreno, Phyllis Newman and Betty Buckley, to name a few more divas onstage this season.

In theater it's just a darn good year for actresses, particularly older actresses, the kind who routinely can't get a cab in Hollywood. In Hollywood, it's usually the male star who carries the picture, to the point where Harrison Ford was the first actor signed for the Paramount remake of "Sabrina," as if the casting of the female title role was merely secondary. In the theater, the financial and popular success of a big-budget musical or play can be based almost solely on the adoration of a long-established female star--even if her vehicle is wobbly (but not, apparently, if she's a crusading nun).

Of course, the New York stage isn't always crowded with incredible women. These things happen in waves. Embarrassingly, last year's Tony nominations for best actress in a musical included only two women: Glenn Close (for "Sunset Boulevard") and the I-don't-have-a-chance nominee, Rebecca Luker (for "Show Boat"). Even so, I think it's fair to see this year's bounty as tangible proof that the stage is more enamored of, respectful of, adoring of, its female icons.

People love to see history onstage in the theater. Theater is such an ephemeral thing that devotees worship its living tradition. Hollywood may cart out Deborah Kerr at the Academy Awards and give her a standing ovation, but it is simply not going to star her in a film.

On the screen, we prefer to project fantasies of our lives onto unblemished beauty, the kind that can withstand the withering scrutiny of a close-up. A fresh crop of ingenues is harvested every year to feed the hungry god of cinema. Some of the current crop will make it to the next tier. The ones smart enough to hang on and accumulate power will start production companies, as Nicole Kidman, Meg Ryan, Demi Moore, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster have done. Consider it age insurance; if they're not going to be welcome before the camera, they will make sure there's a seat for them behind it. Let's not forget Collette, the desperate, aging ingenue in John Patrick Shanley's play "Four Dogs and a Bone" (which just finished a sold-out run at the Geffen Playhouse). Collette rightly fears she's going to be playing "somebody's aunt with cancer or somebody's crying sister."

In the theater, we love to see women of a certain age and an out-sized personality in a starring role. People are waiting in line in case of cancellation to see Uta Hagen, who represents a lifetime of acting, of teaching acting, of writing about acting, of theater. And she's still here. Strength, guts, endurance: these are virtues highly cherished by theater-goers.

"The stage is a bit of a refuge from male-dominated film culture," notes director David Schweizer, who is in Washington directing his Los Angeles hit, Lisa Loomer's "Waiting Room," at the Arena Stage. "A large contingent of the theater world is gay," he continues, "and gay culture celebrates women who overcome odds in some way. It also celebrates insane determination, heightened stakes and the need to be known as oneself, for all of one's blazing personality."

Schweizer's description perhaps best applies this season to Carol Channing's performance as Dolly Levi in "Hello, Dolly!" In her mile-high red headdress and flashing a smile wide enough to engulf a small automobile, Channing stretches her white-gloved arms to her fans, as if to gather in their adoration. She exudes a crazed show-biz energy, the kind that says, "Applause is oxygen to me and I will have it," the kind often spotted at Liza Minnelli concerts.

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