STAGE TO SCREEN: Ryan's Daughter and the Runt of the Litter

STAGE TO SCREEN: Ryan's Daughter and the Runt of the Litter As a playwriting professor at the New School's Actors Studio MFA program and an occasional screenwriter, James Ryan has witnessed the moviemaking scene from all angles. He sold one of his plays to Hollywood Pictures about a decade ago and has written several screenplays since then; none had made it to the big screen. So when several producers approached him about optioning his play, The Young Girl and the Monsoon, which debuted at Playwrights Horizons in 1997, he thought better of it. "I was losing plays because they kept getting stuck in turnaround," he says. And so I heard myself saying, 'No, I'm gonna do it myself this time.' "

As a playwriting professor at the New School's Actors Studio MFA program and an occasional screenwriter, James Ryan has witnessed the moviemaking scene from all angles. He sold one of his plays to Hollywood Pictures about a decade ago and has written several screenplays since then; none had made it to the big screen. So when several producers approached him about optioning his play, The Young Girl and the Monsoon, which debuted at Playwrights Horizons in 1997, he thought better of it. "I was losing plays because they kept getting stuck in turnaround," he says. And so I heard myself saying, 'No, I'm gonna do it myself this time.' "

It took four years, about a dozen festivals and a fairly substantial recut, but "The Young Girl and the Monsoon" — Ryan's screenwriting and directing debut — finally opens in limited release on May 4. Terry Kinney (who recently directed Broadway's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) stars as Hank, a divorced photojournalist grappling with the rapid maturation of his 13 year-old daughter Constance (newcomer Ellen Muth), an on-again-off again affair with his boss (Diane Venora) and a strained romance with Erin (Mili Avital), a model who is exactly 13 years younger than him and 13 years older than his daughter.

Ryan says he was inspired to write the play after seeing the emotional upheavals his own 13-year-old daughter was going through. "I was watching this insane metamorphosis in front of my eyes. Teenagers are confused, angry, funny; they're really weird." They're also really hard to cast: He saw more than 400 young actresses before settling on Muth. "Ellen is a savant. She's like a napalm bomb: You drop her into a room, and she galvanizes everyone there."

Despite the tight budget of about $800,000, Ryan managed to start off with three weeks of rehearsal. He saved a fair amount of money— and earned a fair number of headaches — by filming much of "The Young Girl and the Monsoon" in his own Tribeca two-bedroom apartment. "I was patching the holes as recently as last week," says Ryan, who managed to fit as many as 45 crew members and their equipment into the apartment at one point. Ironically, virtually all of the play was set outdoors. Ryan says he hates the cliche of "opening up" a play for the stage, and he seems to take some pleasure from the fact that the movie has even more interiors than the play.

In addition to his teaching load, Ryan is actively pursuing both theater and film projects. Playwrights Horizons is having a reading of his new play, Celestial Navigation, in June, and he has a few film ideas kicking around. But he's seen enough of Hollywood and knows himself well enough to set his sights away from the major studios. "All of us would love to get a green light from one of the entities that control 5 percent of the 39,000 screens in the country," he says. "But I think my karma is much more 'independent filmmaker,' to tell the truth." *

Two things in the April 22 New York Times caught my eye: The obvious one was the long feature on "The King Is Alive," the "Survivor"-meets-King Lear drama filmed in the Kalahari Desert. With Tony-winner Janet McTeer and Lia Williams among the cast, the movie sounds fascinating, although even the highly favorable article floats the notion that it may be a bit pretentious. It opens May 11 in New York and Los Angeles. Somewhat lost in the shuffle is the news that Uma Thurman is producing and starring in an adaptation of the 1997 off-Broadway play Hysterical Blindness for HBO. I must confess that I don't really remember this play. Can anyone out there tell me more about it?

*

When actors go on strike, they're pretty much stuck in terms of lining up film work. But the more forward-thinking screenwriters have been lining up development deals to give themselves something to do during any possible downtime. Wendy Wasserstein is reportedly mulling an offer to adapt a new Laura Zigman ("Animal Husbandry") manuscript called "Her" for Sandra Bullock, and David Lindsay-Abaire (Fuddy Meers, the pending Wonder of the World) has just signed a two-picture deal with Miramax. First up is an adaptation of a BBC miniseries called "Bernard and the Genie." And Alan Bennett is working on an adaptation of his own "The Lady in the Van" for Nicholas Hytner, who's also scheduled to direct the play's Broadway transfer next season (starring Bennett himself).

Meanwhile, 2000 Oscar nominees John Logan ("Gladiator") and Ken Lonergan ("You Can Count on Me") have new historical scripts in the works. Logan is working on an original script for an epic about Commodore Perry's opening of Japan — familiar fare for Sondheim fans. And Lonergan is adapting the King Arthur novel "The Once and Future King" — familiar fare for Lerner & Loewe fans. With so many producers buying four scripts for every one they shoot, it's hard to know how many of these we'll ever see. (As "Monsoon" director James Ryan put it, "I have a lot of friends who have a terrific lifestyle writing movies that never get made.") But it's good to know that good playwrights are making good money — provided they come back soon.

*

Cutting-Room Floor: New Pulitzer Prize honoree David Auburn told Entertainment Weekly he'd like to adapt "Proof" for the screen. Scott Rudin, Sydney Pollack, Mark Canton — somebody make this happen soon. It would be cheap,fast and very marketable. ... Speaking of Canton, he's developing a movie based on Troilus and Cressida for Warner Bros. called "Troy." And speaking of Pollack, he's co-starring with Lisa Kudrow in the now-filming "Marci X," written by Paul Rudnick. ... Charles Randolph-Wright (Blue) has written the script for "The Women's Maintenance Club," an ensemble drama that's about to start filming in New York. ... Bo Eason, a former defensive back for the Houston Oilers, has sold the screen rights to "Runt of the Litter," based on his autobiographical one-man show. The play itself has yet to be produced, but an off-Broadway run is promised for this fall. ... In addition to "The Young Girl and the Monsoon" and "The King Is Alive," look for Rufus Sewell in "A Knight's Tale" (May 11); Austin Pendleton, Lonette McKee and Angelica Torn in "Fast Food, Fast Women" (May 11); and Paul Guilfoyle and Daniel Von Bargen in "A Question of Faith" (May 4). Von Bargen, who plays a monk, is really running the gamut: His last role was as Satan in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

*

My Favorite Thought: I'll get to the various "Follies" casting suggestions next time, but I wanted to throw in yet another movie on the way to the stage, this one courtesy of Warren in Sydney, Australia:

"I've been away, so I missed your first piece on various film properties that may or may not make it to Broadway as musicals, but I agree with your ranking. One film that perhaps has been overlooked is Adam Guettel's and Craig Lucas' 'Light in the Piazza.' I've not seen the film (who has?), but I'm a big fan of both authors' work, and it could be reason enough to make the long haul to NYC. Did you not include it because you thought it might open off Broadway first?"

Your Thoughts: Actually, Warren, I neglected it because I totally forgot about it. Great addition to the list. (And I've since heard about "Blazing Saddles" and "Harold and Maude" musicals.) Which are you more excited about, "The Young Girl and the Monsoon" or "The King Is Alive"? Which summer movies are you really looking forward to? And who's got the dirt on Hysterical Blindness?

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