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Theater companies find fault sometimes is in their stars

Marquee names are a draw at the box office but can be a drain on the stage

Bruce Willis in his Broadway debut in “Misery.”
Bruce Willis in his Broadway debut in “Misery.”(Joan Marcus/Associated Press)

As both noun and verb, there is probably no more important word in show business than "star.''

But the reality is that when it comes to the stage, glittering names on the marquee can be a decidedly mixed blessing. Theater companies and producers who try to tap into star power are often faced with a trade-off between the potential of boffo box office (especially advance sales) and the peril of artistic letdown (which alienates the very audiences who bought those advance tickets). The biggest name onstage can also be the weakest link.

Because they're squeezing in theater appearances between movie or TV commitments, some big-name stars appear out of synch and out of place. Watching them flounder, you wonder how much work they did to unearth the essence of their characters, how little thought they've given to the unique dynamics of live performance (for instance, projecting to the last row, since there are no close-ups in theater), and even, sometimes, how certain of their lines they are.

Look no further than the stage adaptation of Stephen King's "Misery'' to see a vivid example of the way a big star, trying to range beyond the arenas where he made his name, can damage a production. Making his Broadway debut as an author held captive by a deranged fan, Bruce Willis (TV's "Moonlighting,'' the "Die Hard'' films) is clearly helping to sell tickets, but he delivers a performance so wooden, tentative, and devoid of urgency that it undercuts the aura of dread and terror that is vital to "Misery,'' despite the best efforts of costar Laurie Metcalf, a stage veteran. (During previews, there were reports that Willis relied on an earpiece through which lines were fed to him.)

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In the Huntington Theatre Company's disappointing world premiere "A Confederacy of Dunces,'' however, the problem is not the leading man, at least not directly. Nick Offerman, celebrated for his portrayal of uber-stoic Ron Swanson on NBC's "Parks and Recreation,'' finds both the humor and the poignancy in the bloated pseudo-scholar Ignatius J. Reilly in "Dunces.'' Financially speaking, "Dunces'' has paid off big, selling more than $1.6 million in tickets to become the second-highest-grossing show in the Huntington's 33-year history.

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Stephanie DiMaggio and Nick Offerman in “A Confederacy of Dunces”.
Stephanie DiMaggio and Nick Offerman in “A Confederacy of Dunces”.(T. Charles Erickson)

But artistically speaking, "Dunces" is so wobbly that it raises the question: Having landed Offerman for the lead role, did producers — apparently hoping for a Broadway run — underestimate the enormous difficulty of wrestling John Kennedy Toole's sprawling novel into stage-ready form? The unsatisfying end result suggests they did. More time should have been taken to iron out the show's shortcomings and to give "Dunces'' a theatrical shape more in tune with the spirit of Toole's wildly imaginative creation.

Similarly, did the Williamstown Theatre Festival overlook the grievous flaws of William Inge's "Off the Main Road'' — a forgotten play that had never received a full stage production for what turned out to be good reasons — because the festival landed Kyra Sedgwick, star of TNT's "The Closer,'' for the lead role? Or was the hope that Sedgwick could obscure those flaws? If so, those hopes were in vain, because even that skilled actress could not save a July production whose cringe-worthy lowlights included a scene in which her character exclaims "Thank you for jamming your foot into my door'' and "What rapture!'' as she succumbs to the creepy and coercive blandishments of a cab driver.

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Around the same time at Williamstown, another boldface name, Eric Bogosian — a writer-actor known for intensity in the film adaptation of his play "Talk Radio'' and on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent'' — gave a strangely bland and disengaged performance that undermined an otherwise intriguing new drama, "Legacy.'' Bogosian never seemed to have a fix on his character, a sixtysomething literary figure.

On Broadway, a current production of A.R. Gurney's "Sylvia,'' a comedy about a man who becomes obsessed with his dog, is marred — not fatally, but substantially — by the most famous member of the cast: Matthew Broderick. The star's lackluster performance diminishes the impact, comic and otherwise, of his character's obsession, and his unvarying sing-song voice makes it hard to figure out what, if any, emotions the character is feeling at any given time.

Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones in “The Gin Game”.
Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones in “The Gin Game”.(Joan Marcus/AP)

Speaking of singing: The built-in requirements of musicals — that performers not just act but sing and dance as well — make them even more unforgiving than dramas and comedies when it comes to exposing a star who has been miscast. Christie Brinkley was not a strong enough singer to play Roxie Hart in a 2012 production of "Chicago'' at the Citi Wang Theatre, but there she was, receiving top billing. In 2011, George Hamilton's lumber-stiff portrayal of Georges, owner of a nightclub on the French Riviera, threatened to flatten every scene he was in during a production of "La Cage aux Folles'' at the Citi Shubert Theatre. With both "La Cage'' and "Chicago,'' the rest of the talented ensembles carried the nominal stars.

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When it's used wisely and well, of course, star power can be a valuable force that helps bring important productions into existence and acts as a magnet for audiences who might otherwise be disinclined to see challenging plays. Audra McDonald (TV's "Private Practice,'' a record six Tony Awards for her work on Broadway) headlined an August production of "A Moon for the Misbegotten'' in Williamstown that featured a mostly African-American cast. The diversity onstage added resonant new layers to the class differences that undergird Eugene O'Neill's 1947 drama, whose characters were originally written as Irish-American.

Big names who can submerge their egos to the needs of a play are especially welcome on Broadway, which has become more and more star-driven. That's what Daniel Radcliffe, made famous by the "Harry Potter'' movies, did last year in a Broadway production of Martin McDonagh's darkly comic "The Cripple of Inishmaan.'' Portraying Cripple Billy, a youth who leaves his stultifying village in hopes of landing a role in a movie, Radcliffe was memorably idiosyncratic but did not seek to monopolize the spotlight, instead blending in with the rest of the strong cast.

There are only two performers onstage in the Broadway revival of D.L. Coburn's "The Gin Game,'' and both of them are very big names: 84-year-old James Earl Jones and 90-year-old Cicely Tyson. They portray an elderly duo, Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey, who pass the time in a faded nursing home playing one round of gin rummy after another.

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As the card game evolves into a complicated relationship — now slyly competitive, now volatile and recriminatory, now tender and supportive — both Jones and Tyson fully inhabit their characters with performances that are vanity-free, making us feel the depth of Weller and Fonsia's loneliness and their unspoken need. "The Gin Game'' works because even after the long and illustrious careers they have had, Jones and Tyson approach their work not as stars but as something far better: actors.

Kyra Sedgwick (left) and Mary Wiseman in "Off the Main Road," at Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Kyra Sedgwick (left) and Mary Wiseman in "Off the Main Road," at Williamstown Theatre Festival.(Paul Fox)

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.