Matt Damon
Matt Damon
GOOD PLAY HUNTING

Last Friday, two days before his 30th birthday, Matt Damon finally laid down his roots--in downtown Manhattan. So far, all he has is a bed. But, hey, it's a beginning! He dropped his bags without unpacking (he has no dresser yet) and made a beeline for The Drake to do press for his new Robert Redford-directed film, The Legend of Bagger Vance.

Damon's reason for switching coasts is that it puts him much closer to Boston. "My whole family's back there," he says. "My brother has two little boys now, and I don't want to be the distant uncle." But he also has his shingle out for stage work. "I'd love to do theater," he says. "I'm looking for a play, actually." As for immediate plans, he's picking up those unpacked bags this week and heading for Paris and Prague to make The Bourne Identity for director Doug Liman (Swingers, Go).

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ANOTHER COAST HEARD FROM

Damon's fictional golfer in The Legend of Bagger Vance goes up against two legends of the links: Bobby Jones, played by film-debuting Joel Gretsch, and Walter Hagen, played by veteran Bruce McGill. Basically, McGill has gone in the opposite direction from Damon. Once a staple of New York theater, he is now a seasoned character actor in features, and the likelihood of him returning to Broadway lessens markedly each year.

"It's possible," McGill says of coming back to the boards, "but it's not likely. It's such a different world that I am in these days. I live in L.A. now, and my life has got a lot of time-consuming avenues. I have, sometimes, twinges of guilt in that I worked with some really terrific men of the theater early in my life. One of them I worked with when I was in college and he was 95: B. Iden Payne, who gave me such an edge on every other actor in this town trying to do Shakespeare. He knew how to do Shakespeare like the guy just wrote it, and like we talk. If you ever see a Who's Who in the Theater, look him up. He worked in Sir Henry Irving's company as a boy actor. He was head of the Abbey Theater in Ireland and was thrown out for being too progressive; that's when the Abbey was known as a progressive theater. He brought John Galsworthy's plays to New York. He gave John Barrymore his first serious role: Barrymore was like a hanger-on comic, and he gave him the role in Galsworthy's Justice that made him a star. He always said Lionel Barrymore was the better actor. Because of the things he taught me, there's a feeling I have of needing to give it back or keep it alive somehow."

McGill's stage training contributed immeasurably to his most successful and vivid film performance, that of a lawyer who turns a vocal blowtorch on the tobacco-industry lawyer in The Insider. If a four-minute performance ever deserved the Oscar, it was that one. He calls it his "jump out and make the audience jump" scene, and that covers it. "[Director] Michael Mann knew in the audition that he needed something like that in the movie," says McGill. "I came in and did the audition, gave an intelligent reading of the lawyer, and he said, 'Yeah, that's good, but this guy on the stand--this tobacco guy--should feel threatened for his life. He should feel his physical safety is in danger.' Okay. So I read it again, and he said 'Great' and hired me. Months later, when we went to shoot the thing, I said, 'You still want it way up there?' He said, 'Have to. Have to.' It was one interminable day because the other guy--the one playing the tobacco lawyer--was having trouble with his lines. I don't know if he really didn't know them or if he was shocked by the level at which I was playing the scene. Either way, it was a very difficult day. We did the scene over 60 times. I'm a man of the theater, and my vocal instrument hasn't ever been challenged in movies like that. So there was a degree of pride, because I know a lot of actors who come up through television and movies have not done that--could not physically do that. It was a moment where I was proud to have the chops."

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DeROSA ARISES

Busy busy Stephen DeRosa wrapped The Man Who Came to Dinner on Broadway on Sunday (after a stressful Saturday night live telecast on PBS), grabbed a quick gig among William Finn and friends at Joe's Pub on Monday, and is now off to the Philadelphia Theater Center to do Jeffrey Hatcher's Compleat Female Stage Beauty for director Walter Bobbie (with Stephen Skybell and Laura Dean also in the cast). This new play tells the not-often-told story of a Restoration-age actor, famed for his female roles (particularly Desdemona), whose world collapses when the ban is lifted on women performing on stage....Another friend of Finn, Lewis Cleale, says he still keeps up with Michael McGrath, who played Bob Hope to his Bing Crosby in Swinging on a Star. McGrath opens October 25 in Game Show at 45 Bleecker, and Cleale is braced to begin rehearsing Time and Again at Manhattan Theater Club with Laura Benanti (Swing!) and Julia Murney (The Wild Party)....Finn previewed two nifty little numbers from his forthcoming The Royal Family of Broadway at Joe's and provided introductory notes on the talent he assembled (in addition to Cleale and DeRosa, Mary Testa, Liz Callaway, and Wanda Houston were on hand). For cabaret, that's an abundance of riches.

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Reed Birney and Marian Seldesin The Butterfly Collection(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Reed Birney and Marian Seldes
in The Butterfly Collection
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
SELDES SOOTHES

Playwrights Horizons is parading another dysfunctional family in Theresa Rebeck's loud and long The Butterfly Collection, so God bless the brushstrokes of Marian Seldes as the matriarch and principal peacemaker on the premises. Lovely work, my dear....Seldes and her current stage husband, the inestimable Brian Murray, will be together again for the new Edward Albee Play About the Baby--though exactly where or when is anybody's guess right now. "They need to find the right-size theater," says Seldes, "but we don't wish harm to any play that's now on. I'd like The Butterfly Collection to go on for a while."....Yes, but PH has already set its next: Kathleen Tolan's The Wax, set to begin previews on December 12. The Public's Brian Kulick will direct Michael Countryman (Night Must Fall), Robert Dorfman (The Normal Heart), Laura Esterman (Marvin's Room), Mary Testa (Marie Christine), David Greenspan (The Boys in the Band), and Lola Pashalinski (Quills) in the play, set in a hotel where wedding guests get their hormones pumped up by the nuptials. PH's artistic director Tim Sanford characterizes it as "a lot of bed-hopping and soul-searching."