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Hey, Hollywood: Why not work on the L.A. stage?

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There are precious few guarantees in the theater anymore. Boffo playwrights went out with the Neil Simon dinosaurs. A new show by Stephen Sondheim, hands down the greatest living musical theater composer, can't even count on a Broadway booking. The only thing producers can bank on are stars. Celebrities still sell, which is why so many of them are working these days on the Great White Way.

Yet if TV and movie actors have such an affinity for the stage -- in New York right now, Jane Fonda, Susan Sarandon, Jeremy Irons, Geoffrey Rush and Marcia Gay Harden are flaunting their Oscar-validated skills alongside such multiple Emmy winners as James Gandolfini and Allison Janney -- why don't more of the L.A.-based among them take advantage of the great opportunities in their own backyard?

The theater scene here has many pluses for those busy, instantly recognizable types, whose agents and managers are deathly allergic to low-paying commitments that black out weeks if not months of more lucrative screen work. Runs are shorter and don't require as much lead time, and who wouldn't prefer to exercise one's theatrical chops closer to home rather than uprooting spouses and kids for faraway London and New York?

Of course, there are the dedicated actors -- Annette Bening and Laurence Fishburne, chief among them -- who have demonstrated a willingness to performing locally at our leading theaters (the Mark Taper Forum, Geffen Playhouse and Pasadena Playhouse). And then there are the daring fugitives from TV- and movie-land who every once in a while turn up in the sub-100-seat houses, eager to stretch their well-paid typecast muscles. Best of all are the inveterate stage animals, such performers as Laurie Metcalf and Neil Patrick Harris, who, in demand as they are, will work just about anywhere to animate a worthy part in front of an avid audience.

What connects these thesps is a commitment to both their craft and the cultural life of their city. Now why can't artistic directors and producers get more of the more seriously gifted A-listers to see the world through these actors' eyes?

Before the tut-tutters start complaining that the last thing the theater needs is an invasion of the barbarians, let me underscore that no one is promoting the prospect of Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher in Noel Coward's "Private Lives" or, heaven preserve us, the cast of "The Hills" in "Romeo and Juliet." Nor are we looking to rekindle vanity projects -- stars blustering through the canon, the way Pacino hammed it up in "Salome" at the Wadsworth Theatre.

In a city with such a dense concentration of acting talent, no brow has to be lowered in the luring of stage-estranged luminaries back to the boards. If acting thoroughbreds are once again gung-ho for the Broadway challenge surely a few more of them could be enticed to work here, where a sizable number keep homes or even live year round.

Geffen Playhouse producing director Gilbert Cates, who in addition to running the Westside theater knows a thing or two about stars, having produced the Academy Awards show for so many years, urges a bit of caution, however, in how this dream is realized.

"What works is having a star in a part that they're really good in, because there's no point in advertising a Hollywood name and have people come and be disappointed," he says. "Those folks are not going to happily come back a second time."

On this bit of wisdom, Michael Ritchie, artistic director of Center Theatre Group (which comprises the Ahmanson Theatre, Mark Taper Forum and Kirk Douglas Theatre), concurs. "The way we approach all of our casting is to get the best actor for the role," he says. "Sometimes that actor is a movie star or a TV star. Many of them became stars because they're very talented. A movie star is not a bad thing. And they certainly add value to a show in terms of its attention, its marketing, but you have to cast smartly or else you start doing harm to yourself."

For Cates, the prime example of right star-right part was Bening in the Geffen's 1999 production of "Hedda Gabler." All the pieces were in place, he says: "We had a new version of the play by Jon Robin Baitz. Daniel Sullivan was directing. I know Annette loves the Geffen, and I'd like to think she did it because of us. But the truth is that she just wanted to do it."

Bening will be back next season in Joanna Murray-Smith's "The Female of the Species." And though the Geffen is on something of a Hollywood roll, with Chris Pine ( "Star Trek") and Chris Noth ( "Sex and the City") starring in "Farragut North" in June, you could on a single hand the number of times in recent years L.A. producers struck casting gold. "It's always a challenge to get the attention of any actor, and certainly an actor who moves to L.A. is not moving for their theater career," Ritchie says. "They're moving here for a television or film career."

Cates says the chief obstacle is an upfront commitment. "Every agent thinks, 'A year from now, my client could be offered a $10-million payday,' " he says. "Beyond that, you're not just memorizing three pages a day. You have a whole script and you have to commit yourself to very hard work." As he sees it, "Broadway is still a major event in an actor's life," which may make the sacrifices easier to put up with.

Fishburne, an L.A.-based Tony winner who slides effortlessly from "The Matrix" movie franchise to CBS' " CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" to August Wilson stage dramas, contends that he doesn't care where he's performing as long as the role speaks deeply to him.

"Acting is acting," he says. "And it doesn't matter if it's L.A., New York, Ontario, Canada, London or Japan." What drew him to the Taper was Alfred Uhry's "Without Walls," just as it was Wilson's "Fences" that got him to reunite with his "What's Love Got to Do With it" costar Angela Bassett at Pasadena Playhouse.

Next season, he's bringing "Thurgood," his solo Broadway show about Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, to the Geffen. The inspiration? A play by George Stevens Jr. about "an influential figure" that "people should be better informed of."

But Fishburne is the exception rather than the rule. Most of us would fall out of our chair to hear that Denzel Washington, another L.A. actor's actor with stage cred, was starring in "Macbeth" or "Othello" at the Wadsworth Theatre. Sure, he did "Julius Caesar" on Broadway, but it's not easy for big-screen Olympians like him to do anything on a less monumental scale.

Those unburdened with such reputations can obviously return to the stage more discreetly, and there has always been a small army of "Oh-yeah-I-know-that-guy" types taking advantage of L.A.'s bustling theater scene. Consider what's been taking place of late, with John Mahoney (best known from "Frasier") starring in the Geffen's production of Conor McPherson's "The Seafarer," John Heard ("Home Alone" and countless TV appearances) testing his experimental mettle in Caryl Churchill's "A Number" at the Odyssey Theatre) and Jenny O'Hara (" Big Love," "The King of Queens") lighting up South Coast Repertory's premiere of Richard Greenberg's "Our Mother's Brief Affair." And wouldn't you know it: Metcalf is costarring with French Stewart in Justin Tanner's latest, "Voice Lessons," at the Zephyr Theatre.

Talk to Daniel Henning, artistic director of the Blank Theatre Company, operating out of a small but vibrant pocket stage in Hollywood, and he'll tell you that the landscape has grown noticeably more inviting for stars to take chances at venues like his own. Of course it helps to have Noah Wyle of "ER" fame as your artistic producer, but that is apparently only part of the story.

"With the rise in quality of Los Angeles theater over the last 20 years, it's become more acceptable for 'name' actors to explore their craft," Henning says. "There used to be a wall around the entire industry. Now there's a wall around certain agents and managers, but more and more actors are open to the kinds of unique opportunities we offer."

Henning, who has recently worked with Luke Macfarlane ( "Brothers & Sisters") in "The Jazz Age" and Michael Urie (" Ugly Betty) in "Dickie & Babe," says the rewards have to do with offbeat material rather than money, which ranges from $7 to $20 per performance at the Equity-waiver house. "They get to come and play in our little sandbox. It's not about being 'seen.' It's about stretching, growing and learning."

So what's stopping the stampede from the studio lots to the Hollywood theater district? Could the city's infamous traffic be ensnarling that flow as well?

According to Ritchie, commuting is a talking point but not a make-or-break issue. "I have those discussions with actors who are living in Malibu, and you get deep into the conversation about what the schedule is and, while it has not been the deciding factor, it becomes part of the conversation. I'm sure it goes into the thinking for somebody with a family who has to say, 'Good lord, I have to be downtown at 7 o'clock every night, and I have to pick up the kid at school in Brentwood at 4.' But no one has said to me, 'That's my decider.' But look, I live in Los Feliz because it's close to work."

Cates acknowledges that his Westwood location is probably a plus for celebs living west of Doheny Drive, but he says he still believes "the play is the thing." "If the part is right, I don't think driving is the issue," he says. "And in an odd way, if that were the issue, I'd be less interested in the artist."

Well-known actors are already at the helm of several local institutions. Tim Robbins continues to lead the Actors' Gang, Jason Alexander now heads Reprise Theatre Company and Dustin Hoffman is on the advisory board of the Broad Stage. But whether the climate has become more hospitable to household names remains an open question.

Yes, it's an old problem, and as touring show after touring show comes through with the B-cast, audiences and critics (no names, please) can't help but get frustrated. With so many magnificent icons in our midst, why can't we get the A-team more often? Clearly, artistic directors would like nothing more.

"No theater manager or director looks to get the least visible great actor,"Cates says. "If the choice is between Jeremy Irons and Jeremy Schwartz, and both are equal to the task, you're going to go with Irons every time."

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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