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Theater

From Emmys to Oscar

No strangers to theater, actors from television's much-honored 'Frasier' revel in the chance to put Wilde on stage for a benefit.

March 14, 2004|Barbara Isenberg | Special to The Times

When viewers of "Frasier" tune in to the NBC sitcom, it's unlikely their thoughts immediately turn to Broadway.

But the show, now in its 11th and final season, is actually written, acted and filmed in a highly theatrical style. And its cast consists of many longtime stage performers.

So perhaps it's no surprise that "Frasier" stars Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce, John Mahoney, Peri Gilpin and Jane Leeves were asked to appear together in a theatrical classic -- Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" -- to raise money for new play development at Center Theatre Group.

Set for the Mark Taper Forum on Monday evening is "Frasier Goes Wilde," a staged reading of Wilde's 1895 comedy of manners. Grammer and Pierce cast aside their roles of pompous psychiatrists Frasier and Niles Crane to play duplicitous aristocrats, while "Frasier's" feisty radio producer Gilpin and daffy home health nurse Leeves play their love interests.

Forsaking Martin Crane's cane and recliner -- although not necessarily his dog Eddie -- Mahoney morphs into Wilde's Lady Bracknell, the legendary lady inhabited earlier by such diverse actors as Edith Evans, Judi Dench and Ellis Rabb.

The reading also celebrates a TV show replete with leading and guest actors plucked from the stage. Juilliard-trained Grammer has appeared on Broadway and off-Broadway, as well as at the Taper as Richard II and with Reprise! as Sweeney Todd. Mahoney, who won a Tony for "House of Blue Leaves," has been in more than 30 Steppenwolf productions, while Pierce has played Broadway, off-Broadway, CTG's former Doolittle Theatre and, most recently, the Geffen Playhouse in "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks." Leeves took a turn last year as Sally Bowles in the Broadway revival of "Cabaret," and Gilpin recently starred in "As Bees in Honey Drown" both off-Broadway and at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Just above Paramount's Stage 25, where "Frasier" is filmed, the cast met with The Times to chat about theater and the play Wilde himself called "a trivial comedy for serious people."

How were you enticed to do this?

David Hyde Pierce: Ever since we've been doing "Frasier," I wanted us to do this play. When the show started, we were the right age, but the opportunity never really came up before.

Kelsey Grammer: And we consider "Frasier" at least an homage to the writing of Oscar Wilde.

Pierce: Certainly a descendant.

Peri Gilpin: And we've all been dying to see John Mahoney in his tiara.

Grammer: It's as though we all rehearsed this piece before we did "Frasier." We just step right into it. I actually did this play when I was 16. I played Jack Worthing, so I'm reprising my role.

Gilpin: And I played Gwendolen at school in London.

John Mahoney: People in serious drama sort of pooh-pooh sitcoms, but it's really the closest thing to theater you can do. You rehearse every day, you shoot in sequence, and you do it in front of a live audience. It's exactly like a repertory company except we don't rotate scripts. We're a company of actors doing a little play every week.

Pierce: And when a rep company is successful, it's because they've all been together for so long; they're a family. They know each other's rhythms. We all pretty much came from theater backgrounds and work the same way.

Gilpin: We're all theater rats.

Jane, unlike the others, you didn't start out in theater. What led you to try Broadway last year?

Jane Leeves: I thought I'd see what they were all talking about.

Did they encourage you to do it?

Leeves: Actually, Peri put the idea in my head. She said I should do it.

Gilpin: Jane sang at my wedding. We all sing together at benefits, and Jane's really great.

Leeves: It was the first time I'd done it, except for school.

Pierce: When you go off and do a play, you realize the thing we have at "Frasier" you don't have in the theater is a safety net. There are no retakes. No editing. No cameras. It's all you.

Grammer: What happens is what happens in that moment. When it's over, it's over forever.

Gilpin: We have a million stories about the unexpected things that happen onstage or backstage. People always ask us if that happens at "Frasier," and it doesn't....

Grammer: ... because you get to stop and go back. One great thing about theater is thinking on your feet when an accident happens. I was in "Wild Oats" in Santa Fe in 1983 when I shot my father two acts too early. I was doing gun tricks, and the gun went off. David Brooks, who was playing my father, had powder all over his shirt and started to stagger backward. I could see his eyes saying, "What am I going to do? It's the first act." So I turned to the audience and said, "OK, I screwed up," and from the audience came, "You certainly did."

We went back and redid it. I did all the gun tricks I was supposed to do. There were 300 people in the audience, and every once in a while, I'll bump into someone who walks up and says, "I saw you shoot your father." That's a great thing about the theater -- just you and that group have that night.

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