Off B'way attracting big names to small venues

West of Ninth Avenue, in a small Off Broadway theater, a dozen actors came to understand what ensemble acting truly meant: cramming into two dressing rooms and taking only shared bows, no solo strutting. Nothing unusual there, except that two of the “Aunt Dan and Lemon” cast members come from the trailer-and-assistant world of movies and television: Lili Taylor (“Six Feet Under,” “High Fidelity”) and Kristen Johnson (“Third Rock From the Sun”).

“They were doing it for love, not for money or attention,” says director Scott Elliott.

While Broadway has long drawn movie and television actors for the curtain calls, award possibilities and a star’s drawing power, Off Broadway has of late been attracting some notable names, too. They’re showing up not just in rotating ensemble pieces like “The Exonerated” and star turns like “Trumbo,” but in ambitious dramas and comedies, including plenty that are quirky and far from tourist-friendly.

“I dig that idea of being part of a process of rehearsing with a whole group for four weeks,” says Josh Charles (“Sports Night”), who’s co-starring with Anna Paquin and Melissa Leo in Neil LaBute’s “The Distance From Here” at MCC. “You don’t get to mine material like that on a weekly TV show. And the immediacy of performing live is part of the allure too.”

Last year saw, among others, Al Pacino and John Goodman in “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui”; Pacino and Marisa Tomei in “Salome”; Edward Norton and Catherine Keener in “Burn This”; Frances McDormand in “Far Away”; and Danny Aiello in “Adult Entertainment.”

This year’s cavalcade of stars has already yielded Isabella Rossellini, Taylor and Johnson along with Heather Graham in “Recent Tragic Events” and Anna Paquin and Ana Gasteyer in “Roulette,” with still more stars onstage right now (see related story).

“It’s definitely a trend,” says Andrew Leynse, artistic director at Primary Stages, which recently featured Rossellini in “Stendhal Syndrome.” “Since 9/11, Off Broadway has had to become much more competitive.”

Unlike Broadway, Off Broadway plays don’t count on star power to drive ticket sales — “Stendhal’s” biggest selling point was actually playwright Terrence McNally — but Leynse says Rossellini’s name will be a selling point in seducing subscribers.

The celebrity “trickle-down effect” plays out in numerous ways, adds Robert LuPone, co-artistic director of MCC, explaining that with no advertising budget, movie and TV stars generate free marketing by attracting the media.

When Scott Morfee was an unknown producer shopping unknown playwright Tracy Letts’ dark and twisted “Killer Joe,” having Scott Glenn and Amanda Plummer signed on “provided credibility to investors. They’re a formidable combo and that said, ‘Pay attention to this play.’ “

Attracting stars, especially from indie films and TV, is getting easier, LuPone says: “The younger generation of actors think the stage is cool.” (He cautions, however, that some actors have that trailer mentality or lack legit chops.)

Leynse contends actors see edgy plays as “legitimizing their career” and adds, “It gives more back emotionally than working on a set.” And this off-beat Off Broadway fare may serve pragmatic purposes beyond the emotional satisfaction. “I can be daring and tackle something I wouldn’t be able to do in a film, either because these kinds of movies aren’t getting made or I wouldn’t get cast in it right now,” says Charles. “This is what I needed to do as an actor, but this may be good for my career, too.”

Marquee names

Although Off Broadway runs usually are fairly limited, these days it seems a new star comes out to shine every other week. The current roster should keep stargazers happy through the end of this season.

  • Anna Paquin, fresh from “Roulette,” is heading to Neil LaBute’s “The Distance From Here” at MCC (through June 5), joined by Josh Charles and Melissa Leo (“21 Grams”).
  • John Lithgow and Sigourney Weaver are headlining A.R. Gurney’s new play “Mrs. Farnsworth” at the tiny downtown Flea Theater (run by Weaver’s husband, Jim Simpson, who also directs).
  • The New Group follows its “Aunt Dan and Lemon” with “Roar,” starring Annabella Sciorra, at Theater Row through May 8.
  • And across the bridge at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Maggie Gyllenhaal (“Secretary”) makes her New York stage de-but in Tony Kushner’s “Homebody/Kabul” (through May 30).
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