Kidman and 'Blue Room' Generate a Red-Hot Buzz

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani may have shuttered most of the porn joints around Times Square, but the hottest sex show in quite some time lands on Broadway on Nov. 27.

"The Blue Room" comes with a much better pedigree, of course. David Hare has adapted this sophisticated sex comedy from Arthur Schnitzler's turn-of-the-century Viennese classic of lust and longing, "La Ronde." The brilliant young Sam Mendes has directed it.

But, most important, Nicole Kidman in her American stage debut teams up with veteran British actor Iain Glen for this sexual merry-go-round in which they play a quintet of couples coupling across economic and social barriers.

The limited engagement of 111 performances at the Cort Theatre, with previews preceding the official opening on Dec. 13, is already nearly sold out on the strength of rave reviews from its London engagement and breathless reports that Kidman and her hunky co-star appear nude on stage. The show opened there in September, and, by the time it closed on Oct. 31, scalpers were reportedly getting as much as 1,000 pounds--about $1,600--per ticket.

"Pure theatrical Viagra," chirped one English critic; another felt compelled to write that he was seated close enough in the 250-seat Donmar Warehouse to declare the actress free of cellulite. They were not alone among their male colleagues in acting like lovesick schoolboys as they showered bouquets of praise on Kidman and the play. Not since Lady Godiva made her bare ride had there been such a British stir.

Now Broadway has picked up the buzz.

"Sometimes these shows just take on a life of their own and race away," said Gerald Schoenfeld, the veteran chairman of the Shubert Organization, which--along with producers Robert Fox, Roger Berlind, Scott Rudin and ABC Inc.--is producing "The Blue Room" here. "I haven't seen this much heat generated for a show in I don't know how long."

Even the august New York Times got in the act, speculating on whether Kidman would coyly switch to a body stocking (a flesh-colored unitard) for her nude scenes on Broadway. No, said Mendes, there would be no changes in the costuming between New York and London. "I'm very perplexed that one very, very small piece of unerotic nudity should cause such a fuss," he told the reporter.

Two weeks later, Mendes was still somewhat perplexed at the hype surrounding his production. Reached in Los Angeles where he is shooting his first feature film ("American Beauty," starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening), the director said with amused frustration, "You would think from the reviews and the fanfare that Nicole comes in and has sex onstage 10 times a night.

"But the play is about sex; it isn't sex itself. It's about how desire makes a fool of us all before and after sex, it's about what you will do to get sex and the ramifications of what happens afterwards. It's about the effects it has on everyone. Anyone who's ever had adult sex will recognize in at least one scene or other something remarkably close to what they've experienced."

Mendes also expressed irritation that the London reviews tended to concentrate lopsidedly on Kidman, who apparently switches accents as easily as partners in her roles as prostitute, au pair, politician's wife, soigne actress and coke-snorting model. The critics effectively ignored or downplayed the contribution of Glen, the classically trained actor who plays a cabdriver, eager student, playwright, aristocrat and Clinton-esque politician in the course of the evening. "I know the imbalance also frustrated Nicole," said Mendes. "It was very puzzling."

Still, there's no question that it is Kidman's presence in "The Blue Room" that is sending an electric charge into this season, reminiscent of Madonna's participation in David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow" or Elizabeth Taylor's in "The Little Foxes" in the 1980s.

Though her career started on the stage in her native Australia, Kidman is largely known as an international film star and the glamorous wife of Tom Cruise. Caro Newling, executive producer of the not-for-profit Donmar Warehouse, said that while the experimental London theater already enjoyed a high public profile among theatergoers because of its hit productions of "Cabaret" and "Electra" (which also comes to Broadway this season), Kidman has helped the theater to firmly plant itself in the "popularist vein" with "The Blue Room."

"Having such a global star make a commitment to a theater like the Donmar goes a long way in closing the divide between film and theater," she said. "She is bringing new people to the theater, and they're coming back for more. It's also helped us to consolidate our ongoing relationship with the Shubert Organization, which gave us enhancement money for a new work that none of us at the time had any idea whether or not it would have a viable future."

Mendes, the Donmar's artistic director, commissioned Hare to write "The Blue Room" after ascertaining that Kidman, who had seen and admired other productions at the theater, wanted to work with him on a project. She had shown particular interest in appearing in an adaptation of "La Ronde" for the theater. While Hare wrote the piece with her in mind, the distinguished playwright, whose works ("The Judas Kiss," "Plenty," "Skylight") largely focus on political and social issues, never thought she'd do it. "David wanted assurances that we'd still do it if she backed out," said Mendes, who kept in touch with both parties during an eight-month development period.

Mendes said his decision to cast Kidman and Glen was largely made "on instinct"--the same hunch that led him to cast Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming in his smash hit revival of "Cabaret" without auditions. "You just put them together and work and pray," he said. "When you meet Nicole, she's so warm, so alive and bright and quick to laugh--assets which have not been used in a lot of her film roles, icy figures like in 'Portrait of a Lady.' She plays those well, but I figured you could extract a greater sense of personality, force her into areas of character work she'd be excited by. And Iain's just a fantastic, versatile actor, a worthy foil for her."

Since the run is certain to be sold out before the first preview, the New York reviews aren't likely to matter much, at least in terms of commercial success. Budgeted at $1.5 million, it is likely to bring in $5 million to $6 million in ticket sales. However, New York Times critic Ben Brantley already weighed in during the London run, describing the show as "ice-cold" and "a joyless cycle of users and the used" that "gives off about as much Weltschmerz as the lurid neon lighting in which it is bathed."

Mendes is not concerned that the hype might lead the critics to sharpen their pens or the star-blinded audiences to overlook the work itself.

"It is a play that is bringing attention to David Hare and Schnitzler, dealing with contemporary issues about sex in a nonjudgmental way," said the director. "It's not nihilistic, but it's also not about people being happily married, either. Some will like the play, others will not like it. But it will be hotly debated and contested and people will argue and that's wonderful. That's what I love about theater."

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