IN choosing Durham, N.C., for Mikhail Baryshnikov's theatrical debut in an adaptation of Franz Kafka's weird fable ``Metamorphosis,'' producers Roger L. Stevens and Lars Schmidt had good reasons for ducking Manhattan. Extraordinary financial demands on Broadway have made negative first reviews more lethal than ever. And even a show that previews there - gives practice performances before the official opening - can be killed by word of mouth in the city's tight theater circle.
``Since Mr. Baryshnikov has not been in the live theater before, he wanted to go someplace quiet,'' says Mr. Stevens, chairman of the Kennedy Center's board of trustees and co-producer of some 200 plays.
So last month the ``Metamorphosis'' cast and crew moved far from New York's glitz and glare, and opened on a quiet university campus in a small city in the South.
``I think they could have gone anyplace and totally sold out,'' says David Powers, press officer for ``Metamorphosis.'' But with its new, 650-seat theater and academic atmosphere, Duke University here ``seemed like the perfect place to premi`ere.''
Stevens and Mr. Schmidt are not the first New York producers to think so. Since 1986, Emanuel (Manny) Azenberg, one of New York's most prolific producers, has premi`ered four Broadway plays at Duke's Reynolds Theater: ``Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' starring Jack Lemmon (1986), Neil Simon's ``Broadway Bound'' (also 1986), ``A Month of Sundays,'' starring Jason Robards (1987), and ``A Walk in the Woods,'' starring Sam Waterston and Robert Prosky (1988).
In addition to ``Metamorphosis,'' Duke recently played host to the premi`ere of a first play by Ellen Simon, Neil Simon's daughter. Miss Simon's ``Moonlight and Valentino,'' produced by Mr. Azenberg, is bound for Off Broadway after runs in Atlanta, Houston, and Los Angeles.
A fundamental attraction of the university's neo-Gothic campus is the intimate, perfectly raked Reynolds Theater, which Mr. Lemmon has called ``one of the loveliest theaters I've ever been in.'' But producers say that even more important is the peaceful environment in which cast and crew can hone their craft, undisturbed by the forces that drive the high-powered theater world.
``We've been very happy down here,'' says Stevens, whose ``Metamorphosis'' was halfway through its three-week run at the university. ``The show will be in better shape when it opens [Monday] in New York.''
``Moonlight and Valentino,'' a first play by a young writer, especially benefits from the campus atmosphere, says Mr. Azenberg. A week into the premi`ere, there was ``a whole new rewrite going on in the first act,'' he notes. ``In New York, at $40 a ticket, you can't fool around that much.''
Reviews by the local press were mild. ``It's too early in this woman's career for her to be trampled on or not dealt with gingerly,'' says Azenberg. ``Here you get to hide. You don't get reviewed. You just get to work.''
The tryout program has been a bonus for the university, too. Azenberg, an adjunct professor in the Duke drama department, has encouraged an educational exchange between theater professionals and students from a variety of academic departments.
Lemmon and director Jonathan Miller gave a total of 44 classes at the university in 1986. Mr. Robards spoke at a free public colloquium. Stevens and Baryshnikov have continued the tradition, visiting classrooms and working with students.
In addition, a limited number of student interns work directly with the professional companies. About 20 students were assisting in stage management, publicity, and lighting for ``Metamorphosis.'' Students, faculty, and Duke alumni constituted the entire production team for ``Moonlight and Valentino,'' even acting as understudies.
``It's a supplementary type of hands-on training,'' says Ron Kumin, administrative director of Duke Drama. ``It's a wonderful cultural plus for the university.''
Helping build the university's theater program is a personal dream of Azenberg, who first began teaching a spring seminar at Duke when his daughter was a student here seven years ago. Azenberg, winner of 27 Tony Awards, considers New York costs ``obscene,'' and believes long-term solutions include alternatives to traditional Broadway productions.
AZENBERG says, ```Moonlight and Valentino' is valid. It should be seen by a lot of people. I don't know how to do that anymore,'' muses the gray-haired producer, sitting in a windbreaker and casual slacks in Durham's Washington-Duke Inn. New York and Broadway are not amenable to the theater, what with the expenses, the critics, and that fact that many of the actors are now doing films.''
Traditional tryout cities - Boston; New Haven, Conn.; Philadelphia; and Washington - have become prohibitively expensive for many productions. But small cities still have promise. At Duke, ``you can't make any money, but you save money,'' says Azenberg.
Ticket prices at the university have run about half what they average in New York. Orchestra seats for ``Metamorphosis'' sold for $29 at Duke, compared with $42.50 at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where the play has been in previews since last Thursday. North Carolina hotel, food, advertising, and labor costs are correspondingly low.
The Duke premi`eres of ``Long Day's Journey'' and ``A Month of Sundays'' both roughly broke even, at a cost of between $140,000 and $150,000 each, for the two-week engagements. ``Metamorphosis'' was expected to make a profit, which will go to Duke Drama.
``A set man who wants $7,000 in New York wants $7,000 in Boston. Here he'll work for $700,'' says Azenberg. ``Everyone will work for minimum, because it's not done for financial gain. It's for the play and to save expenses. We're here for one thing only, to work on the play. It's virtuous.''
If more producers aren't taking their tryouts to small cities and universities, it is just because they haven't awakened to the idea, says Azenberg, who is spreading the word. ``We ought to have more new plays here, more new playwrights, more everything.''
``Metamorphosis,'' as seen in its early stages here, was a faithful adaptation of Kafka's bizarre metaphorical tale. As Gregor Samsa, the exhausted salesman who awakes one morning to find he has turned into a beetle, Baryshnikov gave a remarkable physical performance. Scurrying about the set with legs askew and fingers wiggling, Baryshnikov, still wearing a suit and tie, conveyed both the creepy scuttlings of an insect and the pathos of a man ultimately alone.
Rene Auberjonois, Laura Esterman, and Madeleine Potter were Gregor's darkly comic, self-centered family, forced to confront the tragedy. The challenge of translating this comic but loveless tale to the stage involves engaging the audience emotionally. For this, adaptor and director Steven Berkoff was testing myriad effects.
Lighting changes throughout the play cast giant insect shadows against the walls. Repetitive pantomimes of the family's daily routines evoked the 19th-century industrial setting. The set itself, a spare structure of black bars, captured both the web of demands in which Gregor's family had entrapped him and the starkness of their lives.
Perhaps most visually interesting was the choreography, which made the play almost a hybrid of drama and modern dance.