STAGE TO SCREEN: HBOff-Broadway, Sundance and “Quills”

STAGE TO SCREEN: HBOff-Broadway, Sundance and “Quills” I just got back from Costa Rica, which has plenty of tapirs and cloud forests but not too many Internet stations or telephones. So this column will be composed largely of tidbits that have popped up over the last few weeks.

I just got back from Costa Rica, which has plenty of tapirs and cloud forests but not too many Internet stations or telephones. So this column will be composed largely of tidbits that have popped up over the last few weeks.

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With all the talk about PBS forging ahead with their “American Playhouse” replacement, “Stage & Screen,” another television channel has been snatching up stage properties and putting together some impressive-sounding movies. HBO has firmly entrenched itself as the cable channel for discerning audiences, thanks largely to “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” but its film projects bear special mentioning.

Perhaps most interestingly, HBO appears to be gravitating toward off-Broadway material. This makes some sense: Off-Broadway fare tends to be a bit tougher, which favors cable over public television. HBO has no fewer than three Pulitzer Prize-winning plays coming to the screen Wit, Dinner With Friends and How I Learned to Drive. Of those, only Wit is actually in the can. This Mike Nichols production, starring Emma Thompson and featuring Audra McDonald, will hit the air in March. That will be followed in August by Dinner With Friends, featuring Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear, Dennis Quaid and Andie MacDowell. (Assuming Quaid is the straying husband, that casting is perfect.) The folks at HBO were reticent to say too much about How I Learned to Drive (or another stage property that it is developing), but The Laramie Project should begin filming in March with the original cast.

* Remember only a year or two ago when John Cameron Mitchell was just a talented young stage actor who bounced between musicals (The Secret Garden, Hello Again) and plays (The Destiny of Me, Six Degrees of Separation)? He added librettist to his resume with Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and that project has led him to the Sundance Film Festival, which opens in just over a month. Mitchell, who developed the project in a Sundance lab, wrote and directed the film, in addition to playing the “internationally ignored song stylist.”

All in all, theater is pretty well represented at this year’s festival. (Remember: That’s where Ken Lonergan’s “You Can Count on Me” began making noise last year.) “Hedwig” is certainly the biggest name, but “Scotland, PA” (a modern-day “Macbeth”) and “Julie Johnson” (Lili Taylor and Courtney Love find romance in Hoboken) will also screen, as will Tom Stoppard’s latest screenplay, “Enigma.”

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Playwrights Doug Wright and Ken Lonergan are showing their mettle at the box office right now. “Quills” and “You Can Count on Me” are both in limited release and go wider Dec. 15 and Dec. 22, respectively. They’re racking up impressive numbers in the big cities. “Quills” pulled in more than $200,000 last weekend in only nine theaters. (By comparison, that's only a shade less than "Bedazzled" made in 454 theaters that weekend.) And "You Can Count on Me," which may well be the best film I've seen this year, is also doing well in a relatively small scope (about $400,000 in 53 theatres). The timing is just about perfect for them: That kind of firm big-city support, coupled with a few awards by the smaller critics' groups, are what smaller movies need to earn wider audiences and Oscar consideration. The first of the major critics' groups, the National Board of Review, kicked off the awards season on Thursday by naming "Quills" best picture and Joaquin Phoenix best supporting actor. (This doesn't come as a huge surprise, as the organization was originally founded as an anti censorship group.) Lonergan received a special award, as did Bjork (for "Dancer in the Dark") and the ensemble cast of David Mamet's upcoming "State and Main." I'll delve more deeply into the Academy Awards in January, but I suspect several of these people could be nominated on Feb. 13. We'll see.

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Speaking of “Quills,” I realize I haven’t given my thoughts on it yet. It’s quite good. It’s not stellar, but it’s good. With both vice presidential candidates crying for Hollywood’s head, the central argument about unpleasant art is extremely pertinent. But Wright’s play was so clearly over-the-top, with its disembodied hands and wailing sound effects, that the melodramatic plot twists fit right in. By humanizing the characters for the screen, he and director Philip Kaufman create some juicy roles for some great actors, but they also call attention to how broad the plot really is.

That said, the film looks gorgeous and has several great performances. The scenes between Joaquin Phoenix and Geoffrey Rush hum with intellectual and sexual tension, and Michael Caine exudes priggish malevolence as the voice of “morality.” Kate Winslet continues to impress me as an actress who refuses to take easy roles, and Billie Whitelaw is great as her mother. I can’t think of another director who continually explores the ramifications of lust as artfully as Kaufman. I just wish the end product didn’t seem like such a hybrid—half grand guignol, half “Crossfire.”

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I don’t know about you, but I’ll believe the Rob Marshall movie of “Chicago” when I see it. Marshall did a fine job with both “Annie” and “Mrs. Santa Claus,” but will two TV musicals (albeit ones with Angela Lansbury and Kathy Bates) be enough to convince the caliber of stars that Miramax seems to want? This isn’t a comment on his skills as a director—I’d just be surprised if Madonna/Charlize Theron/Goldie Hawn/Nathan Lane/John Travolta/Kevin Kline/whoever would sign on for a debut helmer. And given all the strike uncertainty, this is a terrible time to make legitimate plans for a massive project like this. (Forget the successful streamlined version currently on Broadway. Studios want to see where their money goes in a project like this.) I was a lot more convinced by the Nicholas Hytner/Larry Gelbart announcement of a few years ago. Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters”) is apparently attached now, and he’s a good screenwriter. I’ll keep you posted if I hear anything more.

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So here’s the latest rumor that caught my interest. What does anyone know about an ABC film of “The Wiz”? I’ve been told that Daryl Waters (best known as one of the Noise/Funk composers) is currently working on dance music for it. Anyone heard any casting? Let’s hear some casting ideas, folks. I’m personally lobbying for Little Richard (The Wiz), Lauryn Hill (Dorothy), Andre de Shields (Cowardly Lion) and Chris Tucker (Scarecrow). Anyone else?

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Cutting-Room Floor: Spike Lee is currently filming “A Huey P. Newton Story,” written by and starring longtime Lee actor Roger Guenveur Smith (he was Smiley, the stuttering revolutionary, in “Do the Right Thing”), for the BET cable network. Smith’s monodrama ran at the Public in 1997; the film is scheduled to air in May. ... Remember the Malaparte Theater? That oh-so-hip theater company that you always found about too late to snag tickets? It appears to have returned in film form: Ethan Hawke and Frank Whaley are slated to star in “The Jimmy Show,” which Whaley will direct. Whaley also adapted the screenplay from Jonathan Marc Sherman’s Veins and Thumbtacks, in which Hawke directed Whaley for Malaparte a few years ago. ... Brit stage veterans Jude Law and Sam Mendes both made much-touted Hollywood debuts last year with “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “American Beauty,” respectively. Now Law is scheduled to costar with Tom Hanks in Mendes’ follow-up project, the Depression-era mob drama “The Road to Perdition.” ... Unfortunately, John Slattery’s not in any movies right now. Otherwise, after catching the Roundabout’s Betrayal, you could catch all three stars at the movies. Liev Schreiber already opened in “Spring Forward,” and Juliette Binoche follows suit (along with Alfred Molina, Judi Dench and Leslie Caron) on Dec. 15 in “Chocolat.” Also opening that day is “The Emperor’s New Groove,” which features the voice of Eartha Kitt, and “Song Catcher,” with Janet McTeer and Pat Carroll. David Mamet’s “State and Main” opens Dec. 22 with his regular batch of actors (more on that next time), and the actors in “The House of Mirth” include Laura Linney, Terry Kinney and Anthony LaPaglia.

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My Favorite Thought: Mark took the bait and weighed in on any parallels between the repression depicted in “Quills” and the current political gang:
“I personally think Sen. John McCain poses more of a threat to writers and artists than Bush. Bush wouldn't know good or bad art if it came up and bit him on the ass. McCain, though, seems to take delight in pursuing a moral crusade against the movie industry, much like Dr. Collard in ‘Quills.’ Both take it unto themselves to be guardians of society.”

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Your Thoughts: Which HBO project are you most excited about? Who seems more dedicated to the stage at this point, HBO or PBS? Now that “Wit,” “Dinner With Friends” and apparently “How I Learned to Drive” are squared away, which Pulitzer Prize-winner do you think would be most resistant to a film version, The Young Man From Atlanta, Rent or Three Tall Women?

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