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Broadway a gamble for Hollywood’s hot stars

Roberts, Schwimmer and Peet will give stage a shot
/ Source: Reuters

When Hollywood stars step off the silver screen to tread the boards of Broadway, they often play to full houses of adoring fans -- and dubious critics.

Denzel Washington was a critical flop, if a box office smash, in “Julius Caesar” last year and reviewers are wondering if Julia Roberts, David Schwimmer and Amanda Peet will hit it big this season.

Oscar winner Roberts makes her Broadway debut in Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain,” which opens in April. Peet, now starring with George Clooney in the film “Syriana,” opens in Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” next month.

Harry Connick Jr is headlining the musical “The Pajama Game” and other celebrity names on Broadway this season include Cynthia Nixon, best known as Miranda from “Sex and the City,” but with a long New York theater career.

Aubrey Reuben, executive committee member of the Outer Critics Circle in New York, said with financial pressure on Broadway producers, bringing in a big star was the surest way to fill seats, even if critics aren’t always impressed.

“Denzel Washington made money,” Reuben said. “Everybody wanted to see him because he’s a huge star but you have to admit that ... ’Julius Caesar’ was just over his head.”

Despite the production being panned, “Julius Caesar” was sold out for much of its three-month run and swooning fans of the Oscar-winning star of “Training Day” and “Malcolm X” lined up to see a play that would normally be a harder sell.

“There are certain names where the fans are so huge, it’s almost like stalkers, they want to be close to them, to see them in person,” Reuben said.

“The problem is ... some of these people are not stage actors, they’re used to doing short scenes for a movie then going back to their trailer,” he said. “You can be in a movie or in a TV show and not be much of an actor.”

Great expectationsStill, there are plenty of success stories, especially among those who began working in theater early: Laura Linney, who trained at Juilliard, won rave reviews in 2004 in “Sight Unseen” as did the big name cast of “Glengarry Glen Ross” last year, including “MASH” star Alan Alda and Liev Schreiber from ”The Manchurian Candidate.”

David Schwimmer is best known to fans as Ross Geller from the long-running sitcom “Friends,” but he has a respectable resume in theater that may stand him in good stead when he makes his Broadway debut in a revival of Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” in May.

A co-founder of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theater Company, he has acted in and directed several productions there and earlier this year he made his London West End debut in Neil LaBute’s ”Some Girl(s)” at the Gielgud Theater.

Roberts, who won an Oscar for “Erin Brockovich,” faces the greatest expectations with the most limited experience to fall back on, and critics are already predicting a mob scene.

“Three Days of Rain,” opening on April 19, is the story of a brother, sister and family friend examining their parents’ relationship at the reading of a will. The actors play the children in the first act and the parents in the second.

Like most big names, Roberts is taking a pay cut. Marc Platt, lead producer for the play which has a total budget of around $2 million, said she would earn a share of takings.

“For someone like Julia, coming to Broadway isn’t at all about how much she earns,” Platt told Reuters.

He said while Roberts had never acted professionally on stage, he was confident she would do well. “It is very brave but she’s been very smart about it. She’s picked a beautiful play,” Platt said. “She’s appropriately nervous,” he added.

Nerves are indeed appropriate. As Irish actor Gabriel Byrne put it recently just before taking to the stage in Eugene O’Neill’s “A Touch of the Poet,” “There is no take two.”

Peet, who has worked with the likes of Woody Allen and Jack Nicholson on film, said she has a love-hate relationship with theater and suffers from terrible stage fright.

“A lot of actors have a struggle between desperately wanting to be seen and at the same time wanting to hide ... (thinking) please don’t make me go out there, I’m going to make a fool of myself, I’m an imposter, I’m dreadful,” she said, during a break in a rehearsal.