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'Stage on Screen' Kicks Off With a Live Classic

Television * 'The Man Who Came to Dinner' is the first in a PBS series devoted to American theater today.

October 06, 2000|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The play is the thing for Jac Venza. As executive producer of the PBS showcase "Great Performances," Venza has brought the theater to TV audiences for the past 28 years, presenting such acclaimed dramas as Wendy Wasserstein's "Uncommon Women and Others," Lanford Wilson's "The Fifth of July," George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's "You Can't Take It With You," Studs Terkel's "Working" and the BBC's impressive six-year cycle of complete works by Shakespeare.

Venza kicks off PBS' new dramatic showcase, "Stage on Screen," Saturday with a live broadcast (taped delayed for the West Coast) of the Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway revival of Kaufman and Hart's comedy "The Man Who Came to Dinner," starring Nathan Lane and Jean Smart.

Telecast from the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street, the production of Thirteen/WNET New York will be directed by Jay Sandrich ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show"). The acting couple Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson will host the presentation.

"The Man Who Came to Dinner" debuted on Broadway in 1939 and was adapted by Warner Bros. into a popular 1942 film. Lane plays Sheridan Whiteside--the role made famous by Monty Woolley in both earlier versions--an insufferable radio orator and critic who seems to be the friend of anyone famous. Smart plays a snobby, vain actress friend of Whiteside.

Venza chose "The Man Who Came to Dinner" as the premiere presentation because it was an American comedy classic and one that would lend itself to being done live.

"Almost everything is played out to the audience," he says. "We want the audiences' laughs. I had gone to the final dress rehearsal, and Jean Smart is so wonderful. She has invented the most marvelous version of the famous actress Whiteside calls in to help bring an end to the relationship between his secretary and the young man of the town. Her arrival has great style."

With "Stage on Screen," Venza wants to present dramatic works, both classic and contemporary, that reflect the diversity of American theater today.

Besides "The Man Who Came to Dinner," the series will present adaptations of A.R. Gurney's "Far East," which premiered at the Williamstown Theater Festival and was produced off-Broadway at New York's Lincoln Center, as well as Anna Devere Smith's "Twilight: Los Angeles," which was commissioned by the Mark Taper Forum. Both of these dramas will air in 2001.

However, "The Man Who Came to Dinner" is the only live broadcast; the others have been filmed.

"Far East," Venza says, has been completely written for TV. "It was a very stylized thing that had a Japanese narrator who spoke the lines of all the smaller characters. That would have been kind of bizarre on camera."

"Twilight: Los Angeles," which is Smith's one-woman exploration of the 1992 L.A. riots, is done in documentary-style, combining Smith's show with real footage of the riots.

Rounding out the series will be at least one or two vintage theatrical presentations from the PBS vault. Venza has pulled 26 titles as possibilities, including Tennessee Williams' "Eccentricities of a Nightingale" and "Hogan's Goat," starring Faye Dunaway.

"A lot of people will be anxious to see the archive pieces again," he says.

Whether the series continues into a second season or expands to feature more plays all depends on funding, Venza says. "Stage on Screen" is off to a good start--Starbucks Coffee Co. recently signed on as a national corporate funder of the series.

* "Stage On Screen: The Man Who Came To Dinner" airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on KCET-TV and KVCR-TV. The network has rated it TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with special advisories for coarse language).

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