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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

Playwrights, both living and dead, make the jump to Hollywood

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis star in

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis star in "Fences," a film adapted by August Wilson from his play. Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures / David Lee

If you didn’t know that Emma Stone could sing and dance before “La La Land,” you clearly had not seen her knockout turn as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret,” her Broadway debut in 2014.

More to the point, if the devastating coming-of-age story of a gay black man seems like a plot breakthrough in “Moonlight,” you haven’t been around for the decade of gripping stage plays by the movie’s screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney.

And if “Fences” has made you want to see more movies by a gifted screenwriter named August Wilson, you are out of luck. Instead, you are going to have to seek out the nine other stage plays in the decade-by-decade American Cycle that Wilson created before he died of cancer at 60 in 2006. It’s wonderful that Denzel Washington — an Oscar nominee for “Fences” along with co-star and Broadway veteran Viola Davis — has signed on to executive produce the rest of the cycle for HBO. But Wilson, alas, won’t be around to write the adaptations.

You know how we’re always talking, often complaining, about all the Hollywood stars in the theater today? Well, the stardust has blown in the other direction this year, with a startling number of theater people earning Oscar nominations — most conspicuously, playwrights for their screenplays.

This is not precisely news for Kenneth Lonergan, who has nominations for directing and writing best picture nominee “Manchester by the Sea.” Lonergan had footprints both in movies and theater almost from the start of his important career.

By the time Hollywood began throwing honors at him in 2000 for “You Can Count on Me,” including an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, Lonergan had already made 1996 Off-Broadway news with “This Is Our Youth,” which, among other attributes, introduced a restless bundle of talent named Mark Ruffalo.

The playwright was on his way to being a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist for “The Waverly Gallery,” still the deepest portrayal of an aging woman I’ve ever seen. And then there was “Lobby Hero,” another quietly marvelous play about lost boys and overeducated underachievers.

We were spoiled, expecting to get many more of his clear-eyed, insightful plays — works that feel small but ask big questions and carry a big stick. But his career hit a bump with the movie “Margaret,” finished in 2005 but, after notorious years of editing and legal problems, was not released to his satisfaction until 2013, and then was virtually forgotten.

So there is a special thrill in the success of “Manchester by the Sea,” which has six Oscar nominations. At the same time, we got the premiere last spring of Lonergan’s hilarious comedy about celebrity, “Hold Onto Me Darling.”

Neil Pepe, who directed the Off-Broadway premiere at his Atlantic Theater, pinpoints the humanity that this witty and disarming work has with the rest of Lonergan’s writing. “It is an extraordinarily funny and yet timely story about the nature of fame in America and how it relates to the truth of an honest, regular guy,” says Pepe, who first saw it in a reading in 2004 starring Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, an Oscar nominee for “Manchester.”

I asked Pepe if he knew why some playwrights’ work translated to the movies while others, perhaps even the language-driven Wilson dramas, are a less easy fit. “I don’t know how to tell which writers have that ability, if there’s a way to say, ‘Oh, I know this one is going to cross over,’ ” said Pepe, taking a phone break before tech rehearsals for “The Penitent” by David Mamet — another playwright whose heavily stylized writing would not, at first glance, have been ready-made for Hollywood.

Pepe is “so happy Kenny is finally getting serious recognition,” and marvels how Lonergan understands both media. “He has a great visual sense and sense of economy for film,” he says, “and knows how to use his imagination on the stage.”

If style were a simple determining factor, it would be hard to guess that McCraney would have translated to cinema naturalism. The playwright, who was still at Yale when the Public Theater produced “The Brothers Size” in 2007, is probably best known for what became the trilogy, the “Brother/Sister Plays.” (In July, he becomes chair of the play-writing department at Yale.)

Those three works included ritualized gesticulations, bits of chant, allusions to moons and the wind and the sounds — especially the gasps — of breathing. Until McCraney’s initially naturalistic “Head of Passes” opened at the Public last spring with a staggering performance by Phylicia Rashad, the playwright, a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, seemed an unlikely candidate for movie storytelling.

But in “Head of Passes,” an update of the Book of Job set in “the distant present,” McCraney — raised on the streets of Miami — told an almost straightforward family story closer to the dialogue-rich style of his mentor, Wilson.

I asked Pepe if he worried that the theater would, once again, lose talents to the seductions of Hollywood. He scoffed and offered this welcome reassurance: “I think great writers like being great playwrights.”

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