STAGE TO SCREEN: Hail Caesar, Hail Mary

STAGE TO SCREEN: Hail Caesar, Hail Mary The cable channel Showtime has long had a reputation for such offerings as "Red Shoe Diaries" and "Stargate SG-1." In the past year or two, however, it's looked to the theatre world for slightly classier fare. Its broadcasts of bash and the Brian Dennehy Death of a Salesman earned acclaim, but both were basically the stage productions filmed for television.

The cable channel Showtime has long had a reputation for such offerings as "Red Shoe Diaries" and "Stargate SG-1." In the past year or two, however, it's looked to the theatre world for slightly classier fare. Its broadcasts of bash and the Brian Dennehy Death of a Salesman earned acclaim, but both were basically the stage productions filmed for television.

Two offerings on the weekend of May 26 are looking to boost the channel's reputation for theater adaptations. First up, on May 26, is Nathan Lane repeating his starring role of Max Prince in Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor. This thinly-veiled account of Simon's days as a junior writer on Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" features a cast heavy on stage veterans, including Mark Linn-Baker, Victor Garber and Saul Rubinek. The fare gets a bit riskier the following night when Diane Keaton plays the title role in Sister Mary Explains It All. Yes, it's the infamous Christopher Durang play (albeit with the words "Ignatius" and "For You" somewhat inexplicably removed from the title). The supporting cast includes Jennifer Tilly, Laura San Giacomo and Brian Benben.

Linn-Baker and director Richard Benjamin were both naturals for Laughter: They collaborated on the hit 1982 comedy My Favorite Year, which looked at another Sid Caesar-esque 1950s comedy show. "It's the same show, but from a different point of view," Benjamin says of Laughter.

In addition to Simon, the "Your Show of Shows" writing team included such young talent as Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart. "That team went on to influence everything we know in American comedy," says Benjamin, who started out as a comedic performer in such films as "Catch-22" and "Portnoy's Complaint." "The great breakthrough of the Caesar show is that it was comedy about behavior instead of comedy about jokes."

Benjamin says he was pleasantly surprised at Simon's willingness to retool his own play for the screen. "He's ruthless with his own material. Before, the entire play was set in the writers' office. Now at least half of it is set elsewhere. At least half of the film is Max Prince's life." One concern of the play was that Lane's character is seen as unrelentingly angry and self-destructive. Older Broadway audiences could supplement this image with their own memories of Caesar, but a younger television audience may not have that luxury. Now, in addition to Prince's childhood and family, we see the increasingly frustrating network meetings that fueled his anger. "All those things explain why he is the way he is," Benjamin says. "There's a new past, and that makes it much more emotional." (And having one of America's preeminent jokesters on retainer has its own benefits: "We would literally call Neil every day and ask for a new gag on the spot. Within a millisecond, he'd come up with two or three lines that were better than anyone else could come up with.")

As someone who has tackled comedy from both sides of the camera — and whose live TV experience includes two turns hosting the modern-day equivalent of "Your Show of Shows," "Saturday Night Live" — Benjamin says he has great respect for live performers in general and particularly the people who put live television together. "It took incredible stamina and energy to do a 90-minute show 39 times a week. And performing live is the great divider. There's no net. There's no nothing. I'm just fascinated with guys who go out there and try to get a laugh." Benjamin is currently directing Lisa Kudrow, in addition to playing her father, in the Paul Rudnick-written rap comedy "Marci X."

Meanwhile, Sister Mary director Marshall Brickman's history with Diane Keaton is just as long and storied as Benjamin's is with live 1950s television. As co-screenwriter of "Annie Hall," "Manhattan" and several other Woody Allen films, Brickman played a major role in shaping the dotty, likeable persona that has served her well for the last 25 years.

In fact, that sunny persona would appear to work against the tone of Durang's famous diatribe against organized Catholicism. Keaton seems a bit too accessible and ... well ... nice to play the homicidal Sister Mary. Brickman says he tried to use that disparity to his advantage. "She is a bit more inherently endearing, so the dynamic did change a little. I have a different take on Sister Mary. I see her as just as much a victim as her victims are. She's a victim of intolerance and intransigence."

Brickman got involved at the request of actress ("All of Me") and budding producer Victoria Tennant, who had secured the rights to the play with her husband. "I said `Sure,' but I didn't think it would ever actually happen. It's just too inflammatory," he says. "So I asked Diane if she'd be interested in doing it someday, and she said `Sure,' because she didn't think it would ever get done, either. And sure enough, none of the majors wanted any part of it. It's not the kind of movie that they do or know how to market or care about." Instead, the project moved to Showtime as part of a partnership between the cable channel and Columbia Pictures.

Converting the one-act play into a full-length feature took a bit of work. "We had to kill ourselves to reach any kind of a decent length." In the film, which still runs under 80 minutes, the arrival of Sister Mary gets a much bigger buildup. This gave Brickman and Durang time to flesh out the supporting characters. "The whole aesthetic of the film is quite different because you're essentially dealing with two audiences," Brickman says. In the play, he explains, we were the audience of both Sister Mary's talk and of the play. Here, the Sister Mary audience and the "Sister Mary" audience have been separated, and since we already know our own background, the decision was made to focus more on the on-screen characters.

Brickman says being a non-Christian may have helped inform his approach to the material. "In my opinion, the Jewish agnostic's view is always expressed through humor, all the way from Sholom Aleichem to Isaac Bashevis Singer, whereas Chris still really wants to go into the Vatican with a flamethrower. He has a pretty dark view of it all. With us, the guilt doesn't come from above; it's genetic."

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Film Forum loves those pre-Code days of Hollywood. For those of you unfamiliar with that phrase, it refers to the rather licentious few years between 1930, when sound became commonplace in films, and 1934, when the censorious Production Code was imposed. During those anything-goes days, women could drink and smoke as much as they wanted and bed whomever they pleased; once the Production Code was up and running, any woman shown doing these things had to be clearly marked as a villainess and punished accordingly.

"Ladies They Talk About," the latest Film Forum retrospective of pre-Code movies, begins a four-week run on June 1. Among the saucy offerings with stage pedigrees: "She Done Him Wrong," Mae West's adaptation of Diamond Lil; "Stolen Heaven," a rare film gig for George Abbott; and a Noel Coward double feature of "Design for Living" and "Private Lives." *

Cutting-Room Floor: Former Naked Angels artistic director Frank Pugliese is working on a screenplay about the Italian immigrant experience. Marisa Tomei and Stanley Tucci will participate in a reading of "Italian" next month. ... My suspicions about the Alec Baldwin-Jennifer Love Hewitt "Devil and Devil Webster" may not have been too off the mark. Filming is done, but Variety reports that Baldwin (who made his directorial debut) is so nervous about the backers that he won't edit the film until he's convinced they're on safe ground financially. He and many others apparently weren't paid for several weeks at one point. ... Look for Veanne Cox in the gay comedy "Big Eden," which opens in limited release June 1. The Alan Cumming/Jennifer Jason Leigh coproduction "The Anniversary Party" opens the following week, as does the Alma Mahler biopic "Bride of the Wind." In addition to the casting of Jonathan Pryce as Gustav Mahler, this film bears mention because of its thematic overlap with Doll, the Alma Mahler musical that Stuart Ostrow has been reportedly been developing for the last several years.

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My Favorite Thought: Anthony Zelig, former merchandise manager for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, corrected a statement I made in the last column:

"Just wanted to let you know that a Hedwig fragrance already exists: `Atrocity' was produced and packaged as a gift for everyone working on the New York stage production a couple of years ago. `A fragrance for a man ... or a woman ... or a freak.' P.S. The movie is pretty fantastic!"

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Your Thoughts: Which of the Showtime offerings interests you more? Does Diane Keaton seem like a proper Sister Mary to you?

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