Jeff Goldblum, Sarah Jessica Parker and more Hollywood stars migrate to Off-Broadway

Actress Sarah Jessica Parker attends the 2013 Apollo

Actress Sarah Jessica Parker attends the 2013 Apollo Spring Gala in New York City. (June 10, 2013) (Credit: AP)

The big headline of the fall season is that Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz open on Broadway next Sunday in Mike Nichols' staging of Harold Pinter's "Betrayal." But you knew that.

Less obvious, however, is the autumn's other theater story. After years when movie and TV stars dominated the commercial theater, much of the glitter of Hollywood lights is getting dimmer on Broadway -- at least for now.

Those lights, however, are far from gone. As I was going through my schedule of upcoming enticements, I realized how many Off-Broadway nonprofit plays are cast with stars who, in previous years, we might have expected to see on Broadway.

Forgive the list:

Elizabeth Olsen and T.R. Knight just opened last week in "Romeo & Juliet" at Classic Stage Company. David Hyde Pierce opens Wednesday in John Kander's newest musical, "The Landing," at the Vineyard Theatre. Wallace Shawn co-stars with Meg Tilly and Julie Hagerty in the New York premiere of his "Grasses of a Thousand Colors," opening Oct. 28 at the Public Theater.

On Nov. 4, Jeff Goldblum and Laurie Metcalf star in Bruce Norris' "Domesticated" at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Brit superluminaries Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon co-star Nov. 5 in Samuel Beckett's "All That Fall," directed by Trevor Nunn, at 59E59 Theaters.

Ed Harris, Bill Pullman, Amy Madigan and Glenne Headly will be at The New Group Nov. 7 for the New York premiere of Beth Henley's "The Jacksonian." And Nov. 21, Sarah Jessica Parker and Blythe Danner co-star in "The Commons of Pensacola" -- written by actress Amanda Peet -- at Manhattan Theatre Club.

Scott Elliott, founding artistic director of The New Group, is philosophical about the need now for stars in theaters that, like his, have always prided themselves on developing theater artists. "The landscape has shifted so much in this decade," he told me in a recent phone interview. "It's a new world. Off-Broadway has started getting like everybody else. No longer can we open a play, get great reviews and sell out. If you get the biggest rave of the season, maybe you can stay open without a star in the cast." He stressed the maybe.

"The Jacksonian," unlike virtually all of the New Group's work, is a transfer from Los Angeles. He says he went for an import this time because "the play was irresistible to me. It feels like a New Group play ... I mean, it's no gentle walk in the park."

I asked, already knowing the answer, whether it is easier to sell this than a play with no stars. "Oh, definitely," he answered without flinching. "But these are great artists who are also stars. They are looking for ensemble plays, not star vehicles where they have to guarantee 1,500 people in the seats every night. For us, it's a wonderful thing. They sprinkle their fairy dust on our little theater and help us pay for our second play, by Thomas Bradshaw, who is not well known and that has no stars. We'll be better able to afford to take risks."

Ideally, he believes, stars will bring new audiences into his theater to see Ed Harris, then stick around to see Bradshaw. But what about the dedicated theater actors who get passed over for brand names? "I hear tales of great theater actors who say, 'Oh, shoot ... X got the role'," he acknowledges, his sad shrug almost audible.

He also knows that star casting may be a pact with the devil, that it may well train Off-Broadway audiences to shop for stars the way people do on Broadway. "Ummm, probably," he agreed reluctantly, then turned realistic about scary times. "Competition for audiences is fierce. It's tough out there in the theater. We have to fill the houses."

Certainly, he and his fellow Off-Broadway leaders are wary of becoming like recent Broadway, which bred audiences to ask, "Whom do you have," instead of "What do you have?" Rather than matching actors with projects that made both look good, a name itself often has been expected to carry the material -- no matter how unlikely the union. (Remember Katie Holmes as a plain girl with self-esteem issues? How about Henry Winkler as an aging porn star?)

Whatever stars are getting Off-Broadway, it isn't money. Off-Broadway nonprofits follow a "favored nations" clause in the Actors Equity contracts. Everyone in a certain-size theater gets paid the same minimum. For the New Group, that's about $500 a week for an eight-week run.

At least, stars Off-Broadway don't have to contend with the humiliation of high-profile failures and, especially the past two years, the very public humiliation of getting no Tony nominations.

Among the 2012 list of the grievously overlooked and/or conspicuously ignored were Ricky Martin, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew Broderick, Alan Rickman, Hugh Dancy, Blair Underwood, Stacy Keach, Tyne Daly and Kim Cattrall.

Left off last spring's Tony nominations were Al Pacino, Scarlett Johansson, Katie Holmes, Alec Baldwin, Jessica Chastain, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Cumming, Debra Winger, Paul Rudd, Jim Parsons, Henry Winkler, Vanessa Williams, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Bette Midler.

There are some brand names coming to Broadway by the end of the year. Mary Louise Parker opens Thursday in "The Snow Geese," the same evening Ethan Hawke begins previews in "Macbeth" at the Lincoln Center Theater. Both actors have spent plenty of time Off-Broadway before and after Hollywood came calling.

Also, British male stars will be here in force with classics -- Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in rep with Harold Pinter's "No Man's Land" and Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," plus Mark Rylance in rep with an all-male "Richard III" and "Twelfth Night" from Shakespeare's Globe.

In the spring I talked about stars with Lynne Meadow, veteran artistic director of Off- Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club and its Broadway venue, the Friedman. "You can get cynical thinking that, just because you have a star, you've got to be good," she said thoughtfully, noting how many of her theater's alumni -- including Mary Louise Parker and Sarah Jessica Parker -- did theater before Hollywood considered them stars.

"But it is just really hard to do a good show," she murmured. "Doing any show is tough." With more stars bringing different expectations to Off-Broadway, that may be getting tougher.