Nathan Lane in "The Nance," at the Lyceum Theatre in...

Nathan Lane in "The Nance," at the Lyceum Theatre in Manhattan. Credit: AP / Joan Marcus

Angela Lansbury has played the aging Southern-Jewish widow in "Driving Miss Daisy" for only one brief run. That was in Australia for five months in early 2013.

And I just saw it.

From mid-April through mid-August last year, Nathan Lane created one of his deepest, most provocative and dazzling characters -- a man who plays the stereotyped '30s vaudeville "pansy part" in "The Nance" -- in a Lincoln Center production on Broadway.

You can see it Monday.

It has been almost eight years since opera audiences outside New York were first able to see Metropolitan Opera performances in movie theaters around the country and parts of the world. And theatergoers since 2009 have been flocking to movie houses to see attractions from London's National Theatre.

But finally, a few enterprising souls are betting theater lovers who live outside New York or don't visit Broadway may well be hungering to see good plays at decent prices on HD movie screens near home.

"Driving Miss Daisy," Alfred Uhry's 1988 Pulitzer winner, kicked off the stage-to-screen experiment in 600 theaters June 4-10 with Lansbury as Miss Daisy, James Earl Jones as her illiterate but equally proud black chauffeur and Boyd Gaines as her gracefully exasperated son. This is an inaugural partnership between Screenvision, a cinema advertising company serving more than 14,000 screens around the country, and a new company aptly called Broadway Near You.

Starting Monday, "The Nance" will be shown in more than 300 movie theaters in the United States and Canada for a limited run that, in some cities, will coincide with Gay Pride Week. This project is co-presented by Screenvision and its other partner, Lincoln Center. Later this year, the taping of Douglas Carter Beane's ambitious tragicomedy will be shown on PBS as part of the Live From Lincoln Center series.

In 2011, Lincoln Center presented New York City Ballet's "The Nutcracker" in movie theaters as well as on PBS, so there is some precedent. As for the current taping of Lincoln Center Theater's production of "Act One" for PBS, a spokesman says speculation about a movie life for the play is "premature."

Darryl Schaffer, an executive vice president at Screenvision, tells me she hopes for another three plays on screens by the end of the year. As director of something called "alternative programming," she says she oversees "anything not provided by movie studios to our exhibitors." This has included a trial balloon with Broadway's middling "Romeo and Juliet," starring Orlando Bloom, for two weeks in February.

But why theater and why now? Schaffer credits the successful Met opera simulcasts for "breaking barriers in content." Technically, the big difference is the investment in digital equipment at almost all movie theaters in the past few years.

Ed Greenberg and Lee deBoer, co-founders of Broadway Near You, are enthusiastic about digital. "The cameras are smaller and the lighting is less intrusive," Greenberg told me recently. "You almost don't know we're filming."

The men, buddies since their days at the University of Wisconsin, have named the process "stagecasting" and look forward to the time they will have at least one stagecast a month from Broadway or London's West End. Greenberg, a Wall Street guy and brother of Tony-winning playwright Richard Greenberg, says he started wondering about the theater business years ago.

"I would look at how poorly Richard was living," he confided with exasperation. "Here was one of the most successful playwrights in the country and he was still in the same efficiency in Chelsea he always lived in. It got me started doing research on the theater industry. The business model hasn't changed since Shakespeare or maybe Aristophanes. The vast majority of Broadway shows don't make money."

He looked at the Met Opera, which has, as he describes it, a "passionate niche audience. But that doesn't describe the audience for plays and musicals. This is a mass entertainment. The problem is geography."

DeBoer, whose background was with HBO and other media companies, was surprised to learn how few productions ever tour and that even fewer tour with big celebrities. "So many people never get to New York," he said, "and the shows never get to them."

Plays taped for TV or movies are not radical ideas, of course. In the early '70s, there was a fantastic subscription series of 14 films called American Film Theatre. We outliers, who could have never seen Katharine Hepburn and Paul Scofield in "A Delicate Balance" or Ian Holm in Peter Hall's production of "The Homecoming" or Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in Ionesco's "Rhinoceros," got our education in movie houses in 400 cities. But that was then.

Through the decades, major theater events have been modestly taped for the New York Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. But that treasure chest of historical documentation is open to the public only by appointment and the tapes are not allowed to circulate.

Resistance to mass distribution has come from producers and authors, who have understandably feared that the future market value of their work would be cannibalized. Then there are the unions, rightfully concerned about being paid for the afterlife of their work.

Producers appear to be softening about other versions of their work, especially after the impact of the "Chicago" movie on the Broadway musical. The key words are incremental revenue stream and branding. As deBoer puts it, "A brand gets supported when there are many ways for people to see it.... If we go out and stagecast a play and it does well ... everyone likes money."

As for the unions, he says there hadn't been a lot of reasons for them to try to solve the complications of income from other media. "There weren't a lot of people knocking on their door," he says, "but reasonable heads are prevailing." According to Greenberg, they have agreements with six of the seven major guilds. "We haven't tried with the musicians, because we haven't tried to do a musical yet."

Ultimately, the success or failure will depend on the translation of the play to the screen, the balance between theatrical projection and small-camera intimacy. At the "Driving Miss Daisy" I saw earlier this month, the result isn't really a play and isn't really a movie, and there was more theatrical bellowing than necessary.

On the other hand, there was Lansbury, 88, whose early movie career is virtually unknown to new generations and whose glorious five-Tony theater career is infinitely less familiar than her Jessica Fletcher on "Murder She Wrote." Broadway already had seen director David Esbjornson's haunting production in 2010 with Vanessa Redgrave as the obdurate woman who loses her independence as she ages from 72 to 97.

Lansbury, who just finished a triumphant "Blithe Spirit" in London and is eager to do more theater, plays Miss Daisy with less gravity and more comic sternness than Redgrave did. By the last scene in the nursing home, however, this once-formidable woman unforgettably opens her tiny, helpless mouth and lets her driver tenderly feed her as if a mother bird were feeding a baby.

We could never have seen that without a close-up. And people all around the country can see it. And we can have it forever. No one really wants to talk much about the archival value of these tapings. But, ideally, the goal will be to do good business and do good.


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