Big-Name Celebrities Light Up the Stage

Michael Phillips is The Times' theater critic

Not long after this spring’s sellout Geffen Playhouse run of “Hedda Gabler,” which marked Annette Bening’s hotly anticipated return to the stage, the Geffen board held one of its regularly scheduled meetings. At it, Geffen producing director Gil Cates recalls, chuckling, one board member piped up: “Gil, you know, if we had a big star in each play . . . we’d probably make more money!”

Cates’ response, in so many words: No kidding. News, this wasn’t. But the starry-eyed observation cut straight to the subject of a game known as “Nab That Name.” It involves the enticement of film and television stars into a harried, stressful, poorly paying six-, eight- or 12-week fling with their first love: the stage.

This game isn’t new. It isn’t played only in L.A. But it was big in L.A. in 1999.

In our fair burg, industry upon industry--hack upon hack, upon flack upon flack--thrive on the backs of famous performers, the folks who act for a living that most would describe as “comfortable.” Ours is a city like many others in that respect, only more so.


Here, any two famous people show up at the same place, or do the same thing--lose far too much weight, for example, or buy the same rectangular eyeglasses--and attention must be paid, as the woman said about Willy Loman, the stage character least likely to sport Roberto Benigni eye wear.

This year, a select handful of big names threw a little stardust onto the local major stages. The ’99 celeb clump, let’s call it, didn’t so much signal a sea change as a little luck and happy timing, especially from the producers’ points of view.

Bening was a seasoned theater actress before her film career, peaking nicely right now, with a probable Academy Award nomination in the offing for “American Beauty.” The Geffen pitched Bening on a Noel Coward comedy, “Fallen Angels,” with a possible co-star in Judith Ivey. Bening asked about “Hedda Gabler” instead.

Over at the Mark Taper Forum, Athol Fugard’s newest work, “The Captain’s Tiger,” fell out of the season. Center Theatre Group head Gordon Davidson talked to Al Pacino about reviving his recent East Coast production of O’Neill’s one-act “Hughie.” Pacino--and Pacino’s shooting schedule--agreed to it. The relatively short “Hughie” run played to 99% capacity.

Surprising? No. Nor, I suppose, is Nicole Kidman doing sellout business (while being nude for a bit) in David Hare’s “The Blue Room” in London, and then on Broadway.

The 1998-99 Broadway season proffered plenty of other stars. Among them: Judi Dench, fresh in the American public’s eyes from her Oscar-winning turn in “Shakespeare in Love,” headlining another Hare vehicle, “Amy’s View.”


Kevin Spacey, Bening’s co-star in “American Beauty,” ensured a capacity run of “The Iceman Cometh,” which Spacey had performed recently in London. (Four-plus hours long, it rated as the Vegas buffet of O’Neill, compared to “Hughie,” which was more like a shrimp cocktail.)


This summer, in an off-Broadway house, Calista Flockhart co-starred in “Bash,” which recently wrapped a limited Canon Theatre run in Beverly Hills with the original New York cast. Tickets went quickly in both cities.

Flockhart, Spacey, Bening and Pacino don’t have a lot in common. But all have roots in the theater. And you don’t return to the theater unless you really want to. People pulling down film and TV paychecks don’t need the aggravation. Unless they really need it.

What’s behind that need? Spacey explained a major factor in an interview aired on this year’s Tony Awards show. “There’s simply nothing like getting up there every night and getting another whack at it,” he said.

When you’ve felt a responsive live audience’s presence, when you’ve known what getting back to the stage can do for your craft, reflexes and spirits, it’s hard not to want it again.

Along the walk-of-fame continuum, there’s stardom, there’s name recognition and there are various points in between. Before it opened, the Geffen’s production of “Collected Stories,” which starred Linda Lavin and Samantha Mathis, wasn’t selling like hot cakes, or crab cakes, or any kind of cake.


The show opens. It’s very good, one of the year’s best productions, in fact. The word of mouth kicks in, and then a funny thing happens. Lavin becomes a pick-up-the-phone reason to see this play. Suddenly she’s an honest-to-God celebrity. People remember her from lots of previous things, TV’s “Alice,” foremost, “Broadway Bound” if they saw her in New York. So they see her in action in Donald Margulies’ compelling two-character drama, and they come away having seen a sterling pro in excellent form.

Many actors’ agents and managers would sooner put their client into a burning building than into a play. The percentages stink. The career value? Eh. Others, though, get it. They get why their clients might want to do a play or two.


There’s a downside to all the starry dust. The more fickle segments of the L.A. theater audience can get itchy or indifferent when faced with a show that doesn’t have a celeb factor. You can’t help but wonder if a commercial enterprise such as “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” wouldn’t have closed so early, at a $600,000 loss, if a “name” had done it. Not that the show’s producers elsewhere have ever put a name in it. But you wonder. And you wonder how many terrific actors might not get a crack at roles they deserve, if the celebrity-as-box-office-insurance ethos takes over completely.

But you know? I don’t think it’s going to happen. I’m not convinced a celebrity-heavy theater year will set the agenda for next year. Star events belong on one calendar, everything else on another.

The town, not to mention the 21st century, is big enough for two calendars.