Can't get to Broadway for the big shows? Now you can get an inkling of what it's like to see first-rate theatrical productions ... on the small screen. No, it's not the same as seeing a live performance, but "Stage on Screen," PBS's new series that takes us to some current theatrical gems, offers theater lovers a taste of the real thing.
The first presentation in the series is the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman comedy "The Man Who Came to Dinner" (Oct. 7, 8-10 p.m., check local listings). It's served up live by the Roundabout Theatre Company from the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street in New York and hosted by Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson.
The hilarious story first produced in 1939 concerns a curmudgeon of a radio personality and critic who never minds taking advantage of anyone and everyone. On a speaking tour in the Midwest, Sheridan Whiteside (Nathan Lane) is invited to dine with a prominent family. When he slips and hurts his hip, he is confined for six weeks to their house - where he intimidates the parents and aids the rebellious youngsters. Meanwhile, he entertains a stream of rich, famous, and utterly eccentric friends.
"Stage on Screen" is part of PBS Showcase, a fairly new effort to bring the performing arts to TV audiences.
"I have been struggling to keep the arts in prime time," says executive producer Jac Venza, who is also the force behind Great Performances. "We're not trying to duplicate the theatrical experience, but to bring people to it."
He says that the so-called "golden age of television" in the 1950s included many forums for first-rate playwrights. With few exceptions, most TV writing is done by committee and lacks the sophistication, wordplay, and complexity of character that are so much a part of the American theater tradition.
Relatively few people in the United States have access to the best the culture has to offer, he says. "Stage on Screen" is one effort to bring new plays, as well as the classics, to the public. Coming later will be A.R. Gurney's "Far East" and Anna Deavere Smith's "Twilight: Los Angeles," both part of the program's 2000-2001 season.
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