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Broadway's fall guys

Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre can’t seem to get a break

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Here’s what the critics have been saying:

”Most of the acting could pass for government-inspected ham.”

”Unwaveringly flat-footed.”

”Style is too strong a word for so superficial an approach.”

Reviews of Pauly Shore’s Bio-Dome, perhaps? Sadly, no. The target of this venom is the ever-gentlemanly Tony Randall. Or, more specifically, his National Actors Theatre, the five-year-old, nonprofit company that has carved a niche on Broadway by staging highbrow classics (Gogol, Ibsen, etc.) and getting whipped by critics.

”They’ve been merciless toward what we’re doing, and I don’t know why,” sighs NAT’s 75-year-old founder and artistic director.

This season’s NAT offering — regarded as crucial for the beleaguered company — is Inherit the Wind, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s 1955 play based on the 1925 Scopes ”Monkey Trial,” with George C. Scott and Charles Durning presenting arguments for evolution and creationism, respectively (opens March 18, 212-239-6280 for tickets). Randall will understudy Scott’s part. ”I know [the critics] are going to crucify us,” he says. ”They’ve got an agenda of some sort to tear us apart. I don’t read them anymore.”

Besides, these days the natty half of The Odd Couple is getting positive feedback elsewhere. In recent years, he has become one of David Letterman’s favorite regulars (in August of 1994, he appeared on the show covered in mud, looking as though he had just come from Woodstock). And last November, Randall married 25-year-old actress Heather Harlan, a former NAT intern, in a city hall ceremony. ”We were married by the mayor and went straight to rehearsals” (for last fall’s The School for Scandal), Randall says. ”Had a sandwich in between. That’s the life. That’s the way I love it.”

What he doesn’t love is the negative response he expects his new production will get from another group: fundamentalist Christians.

”The religious right is no longer a joke,” says Randall. ”All these Republican would-be candidates go down there and kiss the ring of Pat Robertson. He’s the most powerful man in the United States!”

At least Robertson isn’t a theater critic.