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Brit comics N.Y.-bound

Comedians booked for five-week run

LONDON — Westbeth Entertainment plans to import a quintet of funnymen from the U.K. to Off Broadway in early March.

Omid Djalili, Boothby Graffoe, Bill Bailey, Dylan Moran and the League of Gentlemen will be seen, not necessarily in that order, for five weeks at the Village Gate, a flexible 250-seater that has been home of late to such shows as “Love Janis” and “Singular Sensations.”

The series is co-produced by Arnold Engelman, president and producer of Westbeth Entertainment, and his commercial partner, Robin Reardon.

Budget for the lineup was not disclosed, but Reardon told Daily Variety, “It is an expensive season to do.” She and Engelman are in negotiations with a broadcaster to do a series on British comedy that would, presumably, help defray costs.

Westbeth’s past forays into comedy have included producing three shows by Eddie Izzard: “Dress to Kill” (which was filmed by HBO), “Circle” and “Sexie.” Last show played to 90,000 people across 14 cities, with 20,000 seats selling in the first 24 hours, Engelman said.

Bailey, League of Gentlemen, Graham Norton and Billy Connolly also have appeared in the U.S. under Westbeth’s auspices.

Engelman made a distinction between standup comedy in the United States and Britain. “Standup over here (in England) is considered an art form; in America, it’s relegated to comedy clubs and 20-minute sets.”

There are, of course, exceptions. Whoopi Goldberg was a virtual unknown when she came to Broadway under Mike Nichols’ supervision in 1984. Later in the same decade, Rowan Atkinson quickly tanked on Broadway, while Sandra Bernhard and Jackie Mason have had multiple New York gigs, some more successful than others.

On the West End, there seems almost always to be some comedian or other doing a show, and Lenny Henry’s solo act last fall was one of the London theater high spots of 2003.

But Reardon said it made sense to think small for the upcoming five-week season. “We’d rather leave the audience wanting more,” she said, “and underplay the market.”

Whatever happens, Westbeth is in the comic import game for the long haul. Tommy Tiernan, Ross Noble and Ricky Gervais are among other comedians Westbeth is eyeing for American consumption.

The aim, said Engelman, isn’t merely a five-week gig. “We’re looking hopefully,” he said, “to do five years.”

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