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Rebecca Hall plays a woman who murders her husband in the ground-breaking 1928 expressionist play Machinal.

Rebecca Hall plays a woman who murders her husband in the ground-breaking 1928 expressionist play Machinal.

Can James Franco & co. handle Broadway? Add to ...

Rebecca Hall is doing Broadway right.

The Iron Man 3 and Vicky Cristina Barcelona star is making her debut on the Great White Way this week in Machinal, by Sophie Treadwell.

This ground-breaking 1928 expressionist play, about a woman who murders her husband, disappeared for decades after its premiere, and Hall’s presence in this revival is helping pull the show, and indeed an important and innovative period of American playwriting, back out of the shadows.

Film and TV stars are a fact of life on the New York stage now – bringing in audiences with their fame in an age when most stage actors and playwrights no longer can.

With that power, however, comes a responsibility to pick projects that are worthy of the spotlight – deserving revivals or exciting new works that could use the boost.

Because for better or worse, the musicals and plays produced in the commercial theatre capital of the world get tons of attention – and end up influencing playbills across North America. In Canada, from Vancouver’s Arts Club to Toronto’s Soulpepper to Halifax’s Neptune Theatre, you’ll often see what was on Broadway a season or two ago.

Of course, Hall – daughter of the celebrated British stage director Peter Hall – knows what she’s doing. But do the rest of this year’s crop of Broadway-bound celebrities?

JOAN MARCUS/AP

Neil Patrick Harris

You know him for: How I Met Your Mother, Harold & Kumar, the best Tony Awards host in memory.

What he’s in this season: Hedwig and the Angry Inch (opens in previews March 29).

Why it’s the right choice: John Cameron Mitchell’s 1998 rock musical about an East German transgender singer was turned into a movie, but it’s never made it to Broadway. Harris, whose musical talents have been on display to millions as Tony host, is using his sway to help give this cult hit the mainstream showcase it has long deserved – as he did a decade ago with Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in its overdue Broadway bow.

What he should never do: Doogie Howser, M.D. The Musical. You know someone out there must be working on it.

JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

James Franco

You know him for: 127 Hours, Spider-Man 3, the worst-ever Oscars host.

What he’s in this season: Of Mice and Men (opens in previews March 19).

Why it’s the wrong choice: Franco makes such daring artistic decisions – whether acting in out-there films such as Spring Breakers or his forays into performance art – that it’s a real head-scratcher why he’s making his first Broadway debut (along with Bridesmaids’ Chris O’Dowd and Leighton Meester of Gossip Girl) in this old warhorse. John Steinbeck’s adaptation of his 1937 novella hasn’t been seen on Broadway since the 1970s, but the high-school English class staple hardly needs Franco to make it back there.

What he should have done: Taken a cue from his on-screen dad in Spider-Man, Willem Dafoe, who works with New York avant-garde theatre creators such as The Wooster Group and Robert Wilson. Franco could also bring attention to a new generation of off-Broadway experimentalists such as Young Jean Lee or the Elevator Repair Service.

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Zach Braff

You know him for: Scrubs, Garden State.

What he’s in this season: Bullets Over Broadway (opens in previews March 11).

Why it’s the right choice: Woody Allen’s stage adaptation of his 1994 film comedy will see Braff star as a struggling playwright circa 1928. It seems like a perfect fit for the young comic actor’s talents – and as a struggling playwright himself (he has been produced off-Broadway), he should bring insight to the part.

What he should not do: Shakespeare. Broadway’s had enough young actors – from Ethan Hawke to Orlando Bloom – search for artistic credibility through the Bard this season, yielding only disappointing results. Good on Braff for knowing what he’s good at.

MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS

Denzel Washington

You know him for: He’s Denzel Washington, two-time Academy Award winner.

What he’s in this season: A Raisin in the Sun (begins previews March 8).

Why it’s the wrong choice: Lorraine Hansberry’s well-made 1959 play was supposed to be a breakthrough for African-American playwrights, not a dead-end for them. The play was on Broadway a decade ago with Sean Combs – at the time calling himself P Diddy – as angry and ambitious Walter Lee Younger. That Washington, at age 59, is taking on the part that should be star-maker for a young black actor is, frankly, embarrassing.

What he should have done: Lynn Nottage (Ruined, Intimate Apparel) and Tarell Alvin McCraney (The Brother/Sister Plays) are African-American playwrights whose careers could use a little of Washington’s reflected star power.

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen

You know them as: Captain Picard and Gandalf

What they’re in this season: Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land.

Why it’s the half-right choice: If they were just starring in Godot, Samuel Beckett’s most overdone play, these two veteran English actors with long stage resumés might be accused of a lack of imagination. But by adding in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land – last seen on Broadway starring Christopher Plummer and Jason Robards in 1994 – and performing the two in rep, they’re showing younger stars what kind of work ethic the theatre needs and deserves.

What they should be doing: At age 73 and 74? Anything they darn well please.

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