FOLLIES TREAT: BEN HERE, DOING THAT

First cat out of the bag for the most buzzed-about show of the season--and I do mean Follies--is that Treat Williams has accepted the much-contended-for role of Ben Stone in the Roundabout's spring revival of James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim's classic. Ben is arguably the toughest role

Jean Smart, seen here inThe Man Who Came To Dinner
Jean Smart, seen here in
The Man Who Came To Dinner
to act in the musical; remember John McMartin's brilliant on-stage breakdown in the original? (The Tony nominating committee didn't, but director Hal Prince did in his own Tony acceptance speech.) For better or for worse, Williams now possesses a well-worn, world-weary handsomeness that will work wonders for the role. Plus, he can sing it, having started out on Broadway in black leather a quarter of a century ago in Grease.

After that Treat, the rest is spec. Jean Smart is said to have put in a high-kicking bid for the role of Williams' opposite number, Phyllis (Alexis Smith's role); and the front-runner for the Gene Nelson part of Buddy is supposedly Dan Butler. (Bingo!) His better half, Sally (Dorothy Collins), is a role for which only Tony winners apparently apply--most notably, to date, Karen Ziemba and Judith Ivey. Among those who came out for the musical's older guard and gave dynamite auditions are two film femmes who were once crooned to by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin: Betty Garrett and Polly Bergen.

**********************

McMARTIN FULFILLS POTENTIAL

Not only is John McMartin the sole member of the original Follies foursome still alive--he's working! On September 26, he joins director John Tillinger and a cast of ten in rehearsals for Comic Potential, the Alan Ayckbourn import which will have its American premiere at Manhattan Theater Club this fall. Given the actors' strike that's going on right now, it's a slightly frightening comedy taking place in the year 2020, when casting directors simply press a button on a robot machine to get what they want. If they want a 26-year-old girl who has blonde hair and does comedy--boom! out she comes, indistinguishable from a human being. The "actoid" rolling out of the MTC machine is the same one London had: Janie Dee, reprising the work that won her the Olivier, the Evening Standard Award, and the Critics Circle Award. (Hers is the first Best Actress performance to take the triple crown there since Judi Dench's Cleopatra.) When Dee was the Carrie of the last Carousel, she cleaned up the awards then, too. She's appearing here with the permission of Actors' Equity Association pursuant to an exchange program between American Equity and British Equity. Thank you, Equity. Thank you, Equity. Thank you, Equity.

Comic Potential begins previews October 24 and is right now set to open November 16, but that will probably change because it's up against not one, but two Broadway openings: Lily Tomlin's The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe and Harold Pinter's Betrayal.

**********************

Hope Davis inSpinning Into Butter
Hope Davis in
Spinning Into Butter
FIERCE THINGS FIRST

Well, you can't accuse playwright Rebecca Gilman of pussyfooting onto the New York theater turf. Her stage debut here, currently widening eyes at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater, is Spinning Into Butter, in which Gilman has her liberal white heroine confessing racial prejudice in a startling monologue. "The character is very complex, so it's a lot of fun to do it in that sense," says Hope Davis, who plays the part with unflinching honesty. "It's not fun to do That Scene and say negative things about black people. That part is really scary. We have had reactions, but I've actually been amazed at how little reaction we've had. Maybe people are so shocked they just sit there. Maybe they're thinking of themselves. Maybe they can't believe somebody said this."

Gilman's theory: "I think what happens is, if there's controversy, it sorta happens at people's houses or on the way home from the theater or something. When we did the production in Chicago, it generated a lot of discussion. Here, I hope it stirs up a lot of things inside people that they didn't feel they'd be able to talk about with each other."

Given that frontal approach, it must have been chilling to survey her first opening-night audience in New York and spy Spike Lee. (No, they didn't speak.) Ironically, Lee's wife chose That Scene to take a bathroom break and missed the whole diatribe. Wouldn't you love to have been a fly on the wall when they played catch-up?

Our next Gilman--Boy Gets Girl--will be seen at Manhattan Theater Club (previews begin January 30; opening night is February 20). "It's not really a romantic comedy," the author hastens to note. "It's about a stalker." The MTC version will be essentially the same production that appeared this year at Chicago's Goodman Theater, directed by Michael Maggio and starring Mary Beth Fisher and Ian Lithgow. In support: Matt DeCaro (currently in Spinning Into Butter), David Adkins, Ora Jones, and Howard Witt, who was Tony nominated for his performance as Willy Loman's neighbor, Charlie, in the last Death of a Salesman. That leaves one Gilman play as yet unclaimed by New York: The Glory of Living, another gritty drama hiding under a benign title: "It's loosely based on the story of the youngest woman ever to be sentenced to the death penalty," says the author. "It takes place in Alabama, where I grew up."

********************

IN THE WORKS AT MTC

Importations from London and Chicago allow Manhattan Theater Club execs to do more diving off the high board into original musicals, which they then workshop into existence. What they apparently learned from their prestigious defeat with The Wild Party is to keep at it, and the proof is in their present season's pudding--twofold: Opening on Halloween is A Class Act, in which Carolee Carmello, Jonathan Freeman, Randy Graff, and Julia Murney celebrate the words and music of A Chorus Line's late Ed Kleban. The book is by Linda Kline and director Lonny Price, and the choreography will be by Scott Wise.

Newyorkers, Glenn Slater and Stephen Weiner's musical revue about us cave-dwellers, graduates into a full MTC Stage II production March 20, helmed by Christopher Ashley.

The next MTC workshop, on September 5, is a nonmusical: The Sex King, starring Judd Hirsch. (You were expecting, maybe, Brad Pitt?) The author is Bill C. Davis--and, talk about a change of pace from Mass Appeal and Avow, the play is about a guy who runs an escort service and is being prosecuted as a pimp. Douglas Cramer has optioned the piece, which will be directed by Lynne Meadow in workshop. Laura Linney may co-star.

********************

GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER?

After Spinning Into Butter and before heading for Seattle to try out Charlaine Woodard's Broadway-bound one-woman show In Real Life, director Dan Sullivan dropped off in L.A. to serve Donald Margulies' Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner With Friends for the West Coast. Julie White, who was such an asset to the Off-Broadway production, is otherwise engaged with Anthony (Marie Christine) Crivello in Expecting Isabel at the Mark Taper Forum, so that role is being recast; but Kevin Kilner, who played her hubby here, is repeating the part there. The other couple will be played by Daniel Stern and Rita Wilson....Wilson (a.k.a. Mrs. Tom Hanks) lasted only the first preview performance of Neil Simon's The Dinner Party out in Los Angeles. Annette Michelle Sanders took over the part immediately and repeated it for the Kennedy Center run, but now she has been replaced for the Broadway gig by Jan Maxwell. The Dinner Party commences October 19 at the Music Box under the direction of John Rando, co-starring John Ritter, Henry Winkler, Len Cariou, Penny Fuller, and Veanne Cox...Of course, Maxwell's entry into Simonland means that Little Women is momentarily "Marmee"-less, but producer Dani Davis hopes Maxwell will be on board for a new workshop presentation October 20-22 and that she'll been available in the spring when the Allan Knee-Jason Howland-Mindi Dickstein musical charges toward Broadway.