Anne Heche and Neil Patrick Harris in Proof(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Anne Heche and Neil Patrick Harris in Proof
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The big screen or the boards? TV or not TV? Right now, on Broadway, it's not so much a question as it is a ubiquitous answer. The first half of Jane Curtin's bio in the Noises Off Playbill is a run-down of her truly impressive television career. With Saturday Night Live, Kate & Allie, and Third Rock From the Sun, she notched three lengthy series stays -- a record that not many of her peers can match. Not until just past the midway point of the bio is it noted that she has previously appeared on Broadway in Candida with Joanne Woodward and that, most recently, she toiled in the Woodward-produced Westport Country Playhouse Our Town. Rhea Perlman's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife bio begins by noting that, in replacing Valerie Harper (who replaced Linda Lavin) as Marjorie Taub, she is making her Broadway bow. The bio also lists a recent West Coast assignment in Alfred Uhry's The Last Night of Ballyhoo. Perlman holds off until the third sentence with a reference to her role in Cheers and the four Emmys she walked off with for work as the tart-tongued Carla.

Marilu Henner, who has replaced Michele Lee in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, which, by the way, closes shortly, makes known immediately in her biography that she's previously appeared on Broadway five times. She waits a while before recalling that she was a regular on both Taxi and Evening Shade, had her own talk show, and made 12 television movies. Michael C. Hall, currently up for an Emmy as a result of his Six Feet Under thesping, doesn't call attention to the series in his bio until just before sending love to Amy and just after listing a number of respectable theater outings he made on his way to television stardom and then after, most recently as the emcee in Cabaret.

Whether the above actors play down their television experience or don't, there can be no question, however, that they're summering on the boards in New York City -- and in some cases will be falling and wintering -- because they have now, or have had in the past, high TVQ ratings. Sitcom viewers on a night out at a live show recognize Curtin and give her a warm reception not because they remember her Prossie in Candida or admired her Mrs. Webb in Our Town but because she's been beaming into their homes for over 25 years. They recognize her name when they scan the theater ads and buy tickets accordingly.

It's indisputably the same with Perlman, Henner, and Richard Kind, who's joined them in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife and who is familiar to couch potatoes from even more series than Curtin or Henner. And Tom Wopat, who has spent the last decade or so establishing himself as one of Broadway's most accomplished musical-comedy leading men, will always be a Duke of Hazzard to many potential ticket buyers.

Of the replacements in major Broadway roles during the past couple of months, only Anne Heche, also a Great White Way debutante as the central character Catherine in Proof, isn't popular because she's a TV star. She's known more for her roster of movies, although it could be argued that she's most famous for her kaput romantic association with TV's Ellen DeGeneres. Neil Patrick Harris, also now in Proof, has his slot at least in part thanks to the Doogie Howser, M.D. boob-tube pedigree. But it could be that Sam Harris, who has stepped into Roger Bart's The Producers role, won television's Star Search top prize too long ago for the patrons at Mel Brooks's triumph to place him.

Marilu Henner, Rhea Perlman, and Richard Kind inThe Tale of the Allergist's Wife
Marilu Henner, Rhea Perlman, and Richard Kind in
The Tale of the Allergist's Wife
If Broadway producers are hiring on the basis of consumer recognition, particularly during a period when there are new fears for continuing box office recovery, their selections don't categorically mean that quality acting is being sacrificed on the altar of quantitative ticket sales. After all, many actors, and not just the ones currently on hand, earned their stage stripes before reaping in Hollywood money. Those, like Henner, who come back regularly to local stages usually fit right in and, because they do, can be thanked for reminding their fans that there is such a thing as live theater. Henner and her ilk may often even be the ones introducing new audiences to the importance of theater and, therefore, responsible for helping to build a needed constituency. (Not that being a summer replacement is the only way to provide this service: Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci, who bring home fat checks for movie and television roles, have elected to open as the topliners of the Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune revival.)

So, what about the TV and movie imports? Yes, they may have secured roles that some Broadway watchers think should more fairly be filled by actors who devote themselves exclusively to theater. But the (temporary?) television and film visitors presently in town are not in any way disgracing themselves or their profession. Herewith, a brief overview:

Anne Heche: Looking years younger than 33 (her actual age) and even younger than Proof's 25-year-old Catherine, Heche seems much more vulnerable than predecessors Mary Louise Parker and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Her Catherine is on edge, a female mathematician who can't believe her talent and can't believe that anyone else will believe her talent. This Broadway debut is something of an astonishment, although Heche sometimes speaks so rapidly and otherwise rushes reactions (in an attempt to indicate Catherine's insecurities, no doubt) that she loses lines. This is particularly damaging in the play's final scene, which should be poignant but now seems anti-climactic, negligible.

Michael C. Hall: As Chicago's Billy Flynn, a lawyer with the manner of a card sharp, his biggest accomplishment is that he's having a whale of a time. Not only does he look as if he's been singing and dancing the role for a long time, it seems as if nothing could throw him; the cuff-shooting, eyebrow-arching, and tongue-in-cheeking are second-nature. Hall's execution of the difficult "We Both Reached for the Gun" is completely on the money. And for those wondering if anything of his subtle Six Feet Under gayness can be detected, the answer is no: Hall is all womanizing self-confidence.

Jane Curtin: Perhaps because she's done gang-comedy sitcom for so long, she's set herself down in the midst of Michael Frayn's brilliant Noises Off crowd with consummate ease -- which is not to say that she doesn't work very hard in this physically demanding show. She's Dotty Otley, the fading actress who's trying to keep her name before the public by way of an English sex farce. As the (yes!) dotty housekeeper Otley plays in the show-within-the-show, Curtin employs the right lower-class English accent. She also gets laughs as the glowering jealous lover of her leading man, Garry Lejeune. (That Dotty and the younger Garry are an item has always been one of the harder things to swallow in Frayn's cuckoo-clockwork play, but that's not Curtin's fault.) She and a new cast -- especially Carson Elrod, Leigh Lawson, Paul Fitzgerald, and Kali Rocha -- are performing the piece for all its laff-a-minute worth.

Sam Harris: Unrecognizable, he's also impeccable as Carmen Ghia in The Producers. Much of the physical characterization is modeled closely on what the wonderful Roger Bart did with the part, but Harris brings his own comic energy to the action and has therefore made the role of the gay-as-a-goose sidekick to Gary Beach's Roger de Bris completely his own. Without ever upstaging anyone else -- as if that would be possible in this ensemble -- Harris is never at rest and always adorable. Considering that this is a guy who could sing anybody near him right off the stage, he has far too few musical moments here to satisfy his followers; but Harris has a great time with what he's asked to sing, and that includes the naughty, delightfully non-P.C. "Keep It Gay." Incidentally, Steven Weber, another refugee from Television Land, has gotten better and better as Leo Bloom as he has continued to play the role. The little touches he's added are inspired: Watch especially for something he does with his Adam's apple when Cady Hoffman's Ulla starts turning him on.

The Duke of 42nd Street:Tom Wopat plays Broadway big shot Julian Marsh
The Duke of 42nd Street:
Tom Wopat plays Broadway big shot Julian Marsh
Tom Wopat: More portly than he was as Frank Butler in the recent Annie Get Your Gun revival, Wopat now has even more of the ineffable Clark Gable air he's been cultivating. When his Julian Marsh sizes up Meredith Patterson's Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street, it's with the same twinkle that was evident when Gable first took in Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara. Although Wopat doesn't get to do much singing in this show, which is a real shame, he does reprise "42nd Street" just before curtain and gets more emotion out of it than Harry Warren and Al Dubin may have thought they'd put into it.

Rhea Perlman, Marilu Henner, Richard Kind: Perlman is completely acceptable as Marjorie in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, a woman whose aspirations are so painfully at odds with her middle-class grounding that she's teetering on overload. The problem is that Perlman, a feet-on-the-ground type, doesn't take the bravura approach to the role that Linda Lavin came by naturally and that did so much to cover the myriad holes in Charles Busch's play. Henner, as the rediscovered friend/home wrecker, does possess the necessary sweep and manages to strike some ominous chords that Michele Lee chose not to play. Kind is fine as the husband whose only function is as a leavening presence.