STAGE TO SCREEN: Channel Surfing

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: Channel Surfing When it came to stage adaptations of plays, live anthology dramas like “Playhouse 90” and “Studio One” had something of a monopoly until 1964. That’s when the Ford Foundation set up the National Educational Television project, which became known as NET, the forerunner to today’s public television and the progenitor of New York’s Channel 13 (WNET). Shows like “NET Playhouse” and “Theatre in America” transmogrified into “Great Performances,” which is still going strong after 29 years. Other theater-themed PBS offerings include “Live at Lincoln Center” (which most recently aired the Helen Hunt Twelfth Night in 1998) and “American Playhouse,” which finally shut down in 1997. The trend should continue with WNET’s much-ballyhooed “Stage on Screen” series.

When it came to stage adaptations of plays, live anthology dramas like “Playhouse 90” and “Studio One” had something of a monopoly until 1964. That’s when the Ford Foundation set up the National Educational Television project, which became known as NET, the forerunner to today’s public television and the progenitor of New York’s Channel 13 (WNET). Shows like “NET Playhouse” and “Theatre in America” transmogrified into “Great Performances,” which is still going strong after 29 years. Other theater-themed PBS offerings include “Live at Lincoln Center” (which most recently aired the Helen Hunt Twelfth Night in 1998) and “American Playhouse,” which finally shut down in 1997. The trend should continue with WNET’s much-ballyhooed “Stage on Screen” series.

I say “should” because the series has been awfully quiet since making a splashy debut back in October with a live broadcast of the Roundabout’s The Man Who Came to Dinner. At the time, “Stage on Screen” promised six shows over the following year — so where the heck are they? I checked in with WNET to see what was brewing.

As it happens, the next two programs are on the way. Both are new works; the plan originally was to air three new works and three archival pieces, but a fourth new piece—an international coproduction, no less -- is apparently in the planning stages. First up is Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, which had a brief run at New York’s Film Forum last year. It will air April 29 and be followed three weeks later by a film of A.R. Gurney’s Far East. After that, I suspect we’ll see at least one piece from the vaults. I’m personally pulling for Kevin Kline’s 1990 modern-dress Hamlet, which featured Brian Murray and Dana Ivey.

The other big PBS project, which was news to me, is the upcoming BBC series “Changing Stages.” This highly subjective six-part series chronicles the history of Western theater, focusing on England, America and Ireland. Former Royal National Theater director Sir Richard Eyre hosts the show, which has already aired (in a slightly altered state) in England and is tentatively aired for a U.S. broadcast this summer. As is generally the case with big PBS projects these days, the coffee table book should come out at the same time, co-written by Eyre and playwright/director Nicholas Wright.

* Meanwhile, PBS’ newest competitor is trying a new gambit. Broadway Television Network (BTN) premiered its first pay-per-view Broadway show last year with Smokey Joe’s Cafe, and the numbers were sufficiently disappointing that the company has never fessed up about them. As Playbill On-Line reported last week, BTN will attempt to goose interest in its latest broadcast — David Hasselhoff starring in the lead role(s) in “Jekyll and Hyde” — by first screening it in seven digital movie theaters across the country on March 10. The idea would seem to be priming the publicity pump before the pay-per-view airing, which has yet to be scheduled.

While I was no huge fan of either Smokey Joe’s Cafe or Jekyll and Hyde, the latter seems like a much safer bet, with its built-in “Jekkie” fan base and the relative star appeal of Hasselhoff. I was looking forward to checking out the filmed version in an actual theater, but my fiancee’s bridal shower is that night. If any of you happen to be near one of the seven theaters (the closest one is in Edgewater, N.J.), please let me know how it is.

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Quick addendum to my “Original Sin” comments from the last column: While the Michael Cristofer film’s latest postponement still seems fishy, it was brought to my attention that costar Angelina Jolie may become an even hotter property in the next few months. She’s starring in one of this summer’s most anticipated action films, the adaptation of the computer game “Tomb Raider.” It opens in June, which means MGM can piggy-back some of her media attention and open “Original Sin” a month or two later. (This is, of course, assuming that it does actually open in the late summer or early fall; it’s been rescheduled more than once before.) Speaking of Cristofer, he has a short but interesting piece on Cornell Woolrich in the new issue of Premiere magazine. “Original Sin” is a remake of Woolrich’s novella “Waltz Into Darkness.” The article was clearly timed to coincide with the film’s opening. Oops.

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Cutting-Room Floor: According to Variety, Kevin Costner has abandoned plans to star in and direct a TV miniseries of the Pulitzer Prize-winning epic The Kentucky Cycle. So playwright Robert Schenkkan has narrowed his focus a bit: He has taken a peripheral “Kentucky Cycle” character, the infamous Confederate guerilla William Quantrill, and turned his story into a new screenplay called “Knife to the Hilt.” Details to come. ... Imagine and Universal, which turned the Jim Carrey “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” into 2000’s biggest box office hit, have begun developing “The Cat in the Hat” as a vehicle for Tim Allen. Was David Shiner not available? ... It worked for “10 Things I Hate About You,” so another teen comedy is taking a crack at Shakespeare. Kirsten Dunst stars in “Get Over It” (March 9), which uses a high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a major plot point. Swoosie Kurtz and Martin Short are among the adult stars. And the buzz-heavy Australian comedy “The Dish,” which opens March 16, features John McMartin as the U.S. ambassador.

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Your Thoughts: Which PBS project interests you more, “Stage on Screen” or “Changing Stages”? Any suggestions for archive pieces to rebroadcast? And is anybody heading out to see Jekyll and Hyde on the big screen?

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theater critic for Back Stage.