More US stars hit the London stage

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When the show opened in 1996, two of Britain's foremost actors confronted each other as Albert Finney glared across the stage at Tom Courtenay.

Art approaches its fourth anniversary and 13th cast change at London's Wyndham's Theatre with a flourish of celebrity casting. The latest change, on Tuesday, will see the suntanned glares of Bobby Ewing from Dallas and John Boy from The Waltons.

Patrick Duffy, who played Bobby Ewing in the American soap for 11 years, takes the role of Serge, whose purchase of a gleaming white canvas for a small fortune provokes a crisis in his friendship with Marc. Fellow American Richard Thomas, John Boy in The Waltons, will play Yvan, a part with enormous comic potential, as the friend who vainly tries to heal the breach between Serge and Marc, played by the British actor Paul Freeman.

The producers believe US television stars could bring in new audiences to the already popular show. "Ticket sales show there has been a genuine curiosity among the public to see such familiar faces from their TV screens on the stage," a spokesman said.

It has been quite a month for novel ways of bringing in audiences. At the Donmar Warehouse the artistic director, Sam Mendes, has returned from his Oscar triumph to seek a new, younger and poorer audience. He has introduced "pay what you can" evenings for certain performances, pioneered by fellow director Paul Blackman at the Battersea Arts Centre in the early Nineties but seldom used in the West End. And last week the Almeida opened its memorable production of Richard II, with Ralph Fiennes, in Alfred Hitchcock's old film studios in London's East End.

But above all it is Art, the poignant comedy about friendship set against a backdrop of contemporary-art prejudices, that continues to woo stars and audiences.

Post-Nicole Kidman, Kevin Spacey and Kathleen Turner, the London stage is seen as the place for screen stars to gain artistic kudos. "It's a very big deal for American actors," Thomas said in a recent interview. "I've been waiting to get asked to this party for a long time." Duffy said playing the West End was "my cultural high point. My wife was in tears after the read-through."

Neither tele-soap hero has too many illusions about the fact that they are good marketing material. Duffy said: "It is a great PR idea to revitalise Art with the Dallas guy and The Waltons guy." And they may not be the last of the big stars. Rumours in Hollywood say Robert de Niro and the former brat pack actor Rob Lowe have expressed interest in playing the Parisian intellectuals that the play revolves around.

The play is an unEnglish piece of theatre by Yasmina Reza, the first French playwright to have a regular home in the West End since Jean Anouilh in the Fifties. Yet it has accommodated such established theatrical talents as Finney, Courtenay, Henry Goodman and Tony Haygarth, and can enable stand-up comics to make their name in the legitimate theatre. Jack Dee played two of the three roles during his time with the production and Frank Skinner made his West End debut in the play.

Jude Kelly, director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, said that one of the reasons the play was bringing in people who had rarely if ever been to the theatre before was that the subject matter and the female author's perspective touched a nerve that other plays did not. "Yasmina Reza is exploring the problem men have in communicating emotion," she said.

There are also practical reasons reasons for its success. The production packs laughter and tears into just 90 minutes and it is one of the lamentably few West End plays to open on Sundays. Dafydd Rogers, associate producer of Art, said: "We get a lot of tourist trade, a lot of door trade, on Sundays. We are also finding that a lot of people are coming to London from Europe through the Channel Tunnel for the weekend. They like to see a musical on Saturday night and a play on Sunday. Putting Art on at 5pm means people can have lunch beforehand, or dinner after it."

And for the actors, each cast only has to do a 12-week run. Then it's back to television and the movies.