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Why, that flirting, scheming ...

Special to The Times

It was a simple idea. Take Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s classic screenplay for “All About Eve,” adapt it as a staged reading, line up some stars, and use it to make money to benefit Actors’ Fund of America. When playwright David Rambo took that idea to friend David Michaels at the fund, Michaels was immediately interested.

Hollywood’s 1950 depiction of Broadway ambition gone mad was nominated for 14 Academy Awards -- a record not even tied until 1997’s “Titanic” -- and won six. The film was a veritable who’s who of acting -- even Marilyn Monroe had a bit part -- and five of its leading actors were nominated for Oscars.

Rarely have films offered such juicy parts. Who could forget Bette Davis as Broadway diva Margo Channing, downing a martini, tossing a fur coat or warning of a bumpy night ahead? Who hasn’t heard overeager neophytes referred to as Eve Harrington-like, calling to mind Anne Baxter’s seemingly self-effacing understudy, secretly poised to consume every part and man in her career path?

This afternoon at the Ahmanson Theatre, in a one-time staged reading, Stockard Channing plays Margo and Calista Flockhart portrays Eve. Tim Curry takes on the role of caustic drama critic Addison De Witt -- which won the film’s sole acting Oscar, for George Sanders -- Blythe Danner and Victor Garber are Margo’s ever-available best friends Karen and Lloyd Richards, and John Ritter is Margo’s director and love interest, Bill Sampson.

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There are 16 actors in this reading of “All About Eve,” and even small parts draw stars. Angela Lansbury plays Margo’s wise-cracking dresser-companion, Birdie; Carl Reiner is producer Max Fabian; and Kirk Douglas is the distinguished “aged actor.” Ask Channing and Flockhart why they’re attempting such iconic roles and both women deflect the question, preferring to emphasize what Flockhart calls “a great cause, hugely creative project and excellent cast.”

Top stars, top writing -- a fund-raising format that works. Uta Hagen, Mia Farrow, Peter Gallagher and Jonathan Pryce assembled at the Ahmanson in April 2000 to read Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at a fund-raiser for two theater programs.

More recently, staged readings of “The World of Nick Adams,” a Hemingway-themed teleplay from the ‘50s, sold out New York’s 2,738-seat Avery Fisher Hall in November 2001, then Hollywood’s 3,500-seat Kodak Theatre last November. Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks and others helped raise about $3.6 million for Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang camps for seriously ill children, according to Kevin Duncan, the readings’ New York-based producer.

Now comes “All About Eve.” Playwright Rambo, author of “God’s Man in Texas,” was idly listening to an old TV documentary when he heard Davis remark that Mankiewicz’s script was so good, she thought it could be taken unchanged to Broadway. A great fan of the film, Rambo tracked down a copy of the screenplay and started trying to adapt it for the stage.

When the Actors’ Fund expressed interest in a reading, says Rambo, he went to 20th Century Fox, which owns the screenplay. He also contacted Mary Orr, whose Cosmopolitan magazine short story, “The Wisdom of Eve,” was the basis for the screenplay, and she too was happy to do something for the Actor’s Fund.

Rambo and Michaels next approached Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson, and asked to use the Taper for the benefit reading. Davidson didn’t even listen to the whole pitch, Rambo and Michaels recall. It was too good an idea to limit their audience to the 750-seat Taper, he told them, offering instead the Ahmanson, configured with 1,600 seats.

“I read David Rambo’s adaptation and thought this feels like a play,” says Davidson, who is also directing today’s reading. “And that’s probably the way they wrote scripts in those days. It was a movie but they weren’t afraid to talk.”

The three men then set about assembling what Rambo calls their “dream cast.” Rambo says he immediately thought of Channing and Curry, who both agreed. (It didn’t hurt that Rambo happened to know both actors from his former life as a real estate agent.) Having seen Flockhart in Neil LaBute’s “Bash,” Rambo quickly thought of her as well. “It’s uncanny to read the screenplay written 54 years ago and see how right she is for it today,” he says. “The part requires that so many conflicting qualities be conveyed. Every time Eve speaks she has an agenda, and yet she has to be beautiful.

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“These actors are walking where the legends have walked. But there isn’t one of them who doesn’t have the potency in their acting to make it their own.”

The larger themes

“I don’t think it’s an accident her name is Eve,” Flockhart says.

Adds Channing: “Her ambition has a venality to it, like Eve persuading Adam ... “

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” ... to take a bite of the apple,” Flockhart says.

Eleven days before the show, the two actresses are meeting for the first time and have yet to meet the rest of the cast, but they appear to feel at ease with each another. The two actresses talk about their parts, again and again contrasting the Broadway they know with the very different one Mankiewicz created on screen. Understudies insinuating themselves into stars’ lives or going after their husbands? Actresses on the way up using blackmail to get parts?

Flockhart offers up a few similarities between Eve and Natasha in Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” a part she once played on Broadway. Tony winner Channing (“Joe Egg,” 1985) adds that the one time she went on as an understudy, the star she replaced “was completely unthreatened by the situation. In fact, she was the one who suggested it.”

Both actresses are wearing jeans and black tops, in contrast with the tailored suits of their best-known TV characters: Channing’s Dr. Abigail Bartlet, first lady of NBC’s “The West Wing,” and Flockhart’s single Boston-lawyer namesake of the former Fox series “Ally McBeal.”

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For “All About Eve,” however, they and their colleagues will appear in what director Davidson calls “party dress,” and the minimal set also will reflect the glamour of Mankiewicz’s Broadway.

The film’s writer-director-producer “had a lifelong romance with the theater,” notes his screenwriter son Tom Mankiewicz, who is chairing the event with Celeste Holm, one of the film’s co-stars. “I can’t think of another motion picture that fits so aptly that definition of the word ‘screenplay’ as a play written for the screen.”

Rambo clearly kept that idea in mind in his adaptation. The playwright restored some dialogue cut from the final film, and created some direct address “in the spirit” of the film’s voice-overs. “But as much as possible,” says Rambo, “I wanted to leave the scenes alone. That Mankiewicz dialogue needed no help from me.”

What next? “I like to believe that lurking in this adaptation of a famous movie is a play,” Davidson says, “and it can be produced in a theater.”

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‘All About Eve’

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: Today only, 4 p.m.

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Price: $40-$100; VIP tickets, $250

Contact: (800) 221-7303, Ext 133


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