Ty Burr wonders, What makes Nicole Kidman naked on stage different from Nicole Kidman naked in a movie?
Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks, ...
Credit: Brian Hamill

Live Nude Girl

I saw “The Blue Room” last night. Yeah, I got tickets. It wasn’t that hard: I just went down to the theater and stood in the box office line, right behind the heavy-breathing guy asking where “the… heh… best seats were.” The play was just fine, too. If not David Hare’s best work, it’s funny and thought-provoking and steamy and more than a little sad, not too far a cry from the best version of this sexual-daisy-chain tale, Max Ophuls’ 1950 film “La Ronde”.

Oh, did I mention that Nicole Kidman gets naked in it?

Well, so does costar Iain Glen, but since he’s not a movie star who’s married to a movie star, the hype machine seems to think he doesn’t count. No, the reason all these moneyed, coutured Manhattan playgoers were literally elbowing each other in the eyes to get to their seats (I especially treasured the sweet-faced old lady who snarled and cut in front of me) is that a person they normally see on a movie screen would be taking her clothes off. For about 23 seconds. Keeping her back to the audience.

When that moment comes, about two-thirds of the way into the play, there’s a bit of a disjuncture. Kidman is, as some people have trouble remembering, a very skilled actress, and she’s inventive, funny, and believable in each of her five roles (streetwalker, au pair girl, married woman, teen model, grande dame actress). But when the script calls for her to disrobe, you can sense everyone in the audience quietly going tabloid, thinking “There she is. There’s a stark-naked celebrity.” Then Kidman gets dressed, and we’re back in the play.

The whole thing’s a laugh, of course, since anyone who wants to see this actress in the buff can walk down to Blockbuster and rent “Billy Bathgate” or “Dead Calm” or the splendidly demented “Malice.” But on-screen nudity isn’t quite the same, is it, even in pore-revealing close-up? Somehow, live star nudity — even seen from the back row, in the nosebleed seats — is thought to be the truer thing. Is it that sharing the same room, the same oxygen, with the celeb somehow makes it more real? Or is it just that getting in to see a short-run play in a smallish New York theater conveys status? (Do I find myself boasting that I’ve seen the play? Unfortunately, yeah.)

The fact is, the stage possesses an intimacy that a thousand movie close-ups can’t convey. There’s also a sense of the moment unfolding in the here and now, as opposed to the captured glories of celluloid. Among the many reasons “The Blue Room” is the hot Broadway ticket of the season — besides the bragging rights and the sheer, rubbernecking curiosity — is that it lets you feel as if you are somehow OWNING a movie icon in a more personal, direct way than movies themselves allow — as if you’re penetrating the armored bubble of mystique that hovers around any celebrity.

The crowning irony in all this? “The Blue Room”‘s explicit, bittersweet message is that intimacy lasts but a minute, that true human connection is only an illusion. Kidman strikes me as sharp enough to pick up on the evening’s deeper joke. I wonder how many in the audience do.

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