A new boost for theater --growing cable-TV audiences

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Theater may soon be as popular on American TV as movies. Just as Public Broadcasting Service introduced millions of American TV viewers to opera, ballet, dance, and classical music concerts in such programming as "Live From Lincoln Center" and "Dance in America, cable TV (pay and basic) may become a major factor in bringing the best of American theater to mass audiences.

Cinema has already become the major fare of such pay-TV services as Home Box Office (with an alleged 6 million subscribers) and Showtime (with an alleged 2 million subscribers). The pay-TV companies have only to buy them and air them, most often with no changes at all (unlike films that are specially edited for commercial over-the-air network TV).

Theater, which experience has proven must usually be videotaped especially for TV, has proven more difficult to transpose, although "Theater In America" on PBS has done some fine work in the "Great Performances" series.

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Showtime, the No. 2 cable pay-TV service, is in close to 1,000 cable systems throughout the US, through its misnamed "Broadway on Showtime" series (actually, it's Showtime's version of Broadway). It has been boldly experimenting by bringing a TV version of real theater to its viewers -- and those may number as many as 4 million of 5 million for any sigle performance.

Recently, Showtime imported director Lindsay Anderson to restage for TV a successful Off Broadway production of "Look Back in Anger" starring with Malcolm MacDowell. Result was interesting, if not perfect. Last year, Showtime tried "The Passion of Dracula" and "The Me Nobody Knows," also with mixed, but interesting, results.

Now Showtime is trying one of the most acclaimed recent Pulitzer-price-winning Broadway shows, with its original Tony-winning cast, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, in "the Gin Game." It premiers tomorrow on most cable systems that offer showtime, and will probably continue to air in other Showtime systems through May.

Since it is an RKO-Nederland Production, it will probably turn up later on cable systems other than Showtime, on over-the-air pay-TV systems, and eventually -- in the new "tiered" viewing patterns of the new telecommunications -- it may even turn up on PBS and commercial channels.

A consortium consisting of WNET/NY, WGBH/Boston, KCET/L.A., and South Carolina Educational TV has already announced "The Gin Game" for its forthcoming (1982-83) "Playhouse" showcase series of American dramas. And it would not surprise me at all to find it scheduled after Showtime on one or several of the new cable "cultural channels" (such as Alpha or Bravo).

Theater buffs hope that this revival of interest in theater for TV will not limit itself to "big money" Broadway or even off Broadway productions. There is a great deal of fine regional theater all over the country, too often overlooked in the rest of the country. But one hopeful sign is that the most recent Pulitzer prize in theater went to Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart," an original play first produced by the Actor's Theater of Louisville and performed in several other regional theaters as well as the Manhattan Theater Club. It will be produced on Broadway in the fall and will probably eventually find its way to TV as part of the new revival.

In the future, cable companies will undoubtedly be on the lookout all over the country for such "finds." Original local theatrical productions could conceivably be snapped up for cable TV before they are recognized elsewhere, although there will probably always remain a certain commercial mystique about plays "fresh" from Broadway.

"The Gin Game," by D. L. Coburn, staged on Broadway by Mike Nichols, has been directed for this TV version by Terry Hughes. It was first produced in 1976 at the American Theater Arts in Los Angeles, then the Louisville Actors Theater, where Hume Cronyn discovered it and brought it to Broadway in 1978. That year it won the Pulitzer Prize, remaining on Broadway for 517 performances. It has been produced throughout the world since then.

On the surface, the subject matter would seem to be depressing: An aging man and woman in a retirement home discover each other and reveal their character flaws to each other, unable to change them at this late stage in their life. But as portrayed by the meticulously professional but yet warm and humanistic husband-and-wife acting duet on Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, the play takes on a bittersweet, black-comedy air.

It evokes roars of laughter, mixed in with tears of empathy and sympathy, and is not merely about aging. It is about living. Director Hughes has tried to walk a tightrope between the proscenium arch of the theater and the electronic tube of TV. There are curtains and there is a visible (invited) audience.

For TV sitcom viewers, conditioned to invisible laugh-track audiences, those realistic, ever-present, guffawing people may seem to be intruders. But, for others, it is a reminder that they are seeing real theater, with many of the normal distractions of real theater.

"The Gin Game on TV" is what the show should be titled, since that essentially is exactly what it is. It is a lovely if peculiar combination of theater and TV disciplines which work well, if not perfectly, if you are willing to accept the fact that the thrill of being there has been substituted for the convenience of sitting at home comfortably. Certainly the closeups and reaction shots add a dimension to the performance which not even live audiences in the best seats are treated to.

However, "slo-mo" (slow motion) and instant replay may be missed by TV audiences accustomed to those electronic tricks in their sports viewing. But who knows, maybe further Showtime experimentation with theater on TV may bring us even those goodies.

Meantime, though, if you can find your way to a household paying its way for Showtime, see "The Gin Game." It is early theatrical TV but vintage Tandy-Cronyn. And seeing these superb actors totally immerse themselves in their characters could be a compassionate experience for you, the viewer, wherever you are viewing.

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