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A Summer Camp for Actors

Theater: Big names flock to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, but it's the scale and tenor of the productions that leave their mark.

July 09, 1999|BLAKE GREEN | NEWSDAY

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Tucked away in the northwest corner of Massachusetts, this bucolic, historic New England town spends three-quarters of its year as the home of small, prestigious Williams College. The other months it's a mecca for theater lovers--audiences, students, theater professionals and an increasing influx of movie, television and Broadway stars downright giddy to be recharging their professional batteries up here in the fresh Berkshire air.

Now in its 44th summer of operation, with 11 shows that will open and close before Labor Day, the Williamstown Theatre Festival has become one of the--if not the--primo summer theaters in the country, its reputation riding not only on the variety and professional quality of its productions, but also on the buzz surrounding the celebrities who act in them.

Want to see, up close and personal, Gwyneth Paltrow, hot actress of the moment and winner of this year's best actress Oscar? In a matter of days she'll be moving into rental digs here to begin rehearsals for Shakespeare's comedy "As You Like It," in which, as in "Shakespeare in Love," she's playing a cross-dresser.

Chances are poor to none that you can catch Paltrow on the stage of the Greek-columned Adams Theatre (Aug. 4-15); performances have been sold out practically since the moment the casting was announced, and even the waiting list is closed. But you might be able to glimpse her strolling along the village's tree-lined streets or on a break at one of the local eateries.

Just the other evening, for instance, there was Ethan Hawke, pre-performance, supping in a booth with two fellow cast members from "Camino Real," the surrealistic Tennessee Williams play that launched the season. Hawke--whose character, Kilroy, a boxer, says he has "a heart the size of a baby's head"--was waxing about his own wee offspring and "my old lady" (Uma Thurman to you, pal). She's tied up shooting a movie--"a real drag," he later complains. Otherwise, the whole family would be here, enjoying the Berkshires' version of star-filled nights.

Hope Davis and Blair Brown, also starring in "Camino," walk their dogs on the campus. (Davis' Wheaton terrier, Charlie, has even appeared on stage, but only during a rehearsal.) "It's a little like going back to college," says Davis, a familiar face at Williamstown, who's best known for her film work, including "The Daytrippers," set on Long Island.

"A summer camp for actors" is the description favored by Richard Kind, who's spending his hiatus from "Spin City" doing "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" (through Sunday). " 'Spin City' is my waiter's job," he continues, only half joking. "This is food for the soul."

Schwimmer in Play About Jazz Musicians

David Schwimmer, a.k.a. Ross on "Friends," has arrived for his role in "Glimmer Brothers" (Wednesday through July 25), the premiere of a new play by this year's Tony winner Warren Leight. Like "Side Man," Leight's Broadway show, "Glimmer Brothers" is about jazz musicians, and launching it on its maiden voyage at Williamstown, the playwright says, is "like working with a pickup band. I knew I'd have very good musicians, but I had no idea who they'd be." John Spencer ("L.A. Law") is also in the cast, which, Leight promises, will make a "field trip" into Manhattan to a jazz club during the rehearsal period.

James Naughton, who's such a regular here (this will be his 12th summer) that the locals hail him as "Jimmy," will be coming up late this month to direct Arthur Miller's "The Price" (Aug. 18-29) with Harris Yulin. It's quite possible that Naughton, winner of two Tonys for musical roles and the recent star of a hit one-man musical pastiche, also will be singing in the festival's weekend cabaret.

Stand-up comic Lewis Black, sporting a number of hats up here--acting in "Camino" and working with the apprentices--is the cabaret's ongoing host. Last weekend he segued between the post-performance appearances of Brown, Hawke, Kind and Kate Burton, who'd just finished starring in Frank McGuinness' "The Factory Girls," the season's opener on the Nikos Stage. (The smaller, 96-seat theater is named for the festival's first artistic director, Nikos Psacharopoulos; the 550-seat Adams is named for John Quincy. This is, after all, Massachusetts.)

Bebe Neuwirth has been around for weeks, rehearsing "The Taming of the Shrew" (running now through Sunday), directed by and co-starring Roger Rees, who was last seen in New York in the Classic Stage Company's off-Broadway production of "The Misanthrope," co-starring Uma Thurman. Barry Edelstein, CSC's artistic director, will be directing "As You Like It." Yes, the festival has its own brand of nepotism.

But enough stargazing. Michael Ritchie, the festival's producer (and husband, incidentally, of Kate Burton), would prefer to talk about the artistic lure of Williamstown.

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