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VONNEGUT WORK GETS A BRAINY ADAPTATION.

Byline: Evan Henerson Theater Writer

TALENT, says Stan Daniels, is a burden as often as it is a blessing. In fact, says Daniels, the multiple Emmy Award-winning co-creator of ``Taxi,'' talent can be a real drag.

Hence the reason Daniels, an Encino resident, found himself attracted to the lesser-known Kurt Vonnegut short story ``Harrison Bergeron.'' Why he couldn't let it go, in fact.

Daniels' stage adaptation of ``Bergeron,'' currently playing at the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood, is Daniels' second brush with the story. He also wrote a 1995 Showtime adaptation featuring Sean Astin, Christopher Plummer and a then-unknown Hayden Christensen (of ``Attack of the Clones'' fame).

``I guess something about (the story) resonated with me in my own background, the idea of it being terrible to be talented, and I guess Kurt had the same kind of problem growing up,'' says Daniels during a conference call with Vonnegut, a longtime friend.

``It's just not fair,'' agrees the author of ``Slaughterhouse-Five.'' ``I went to an overachievers high school and, jeez, I would see people my age who could really sing or play the flute, or really jump. There wasn't a level playing field.''

The 1961 story - published as part of Vonnegut's ``Welcome to the Monkey House'' collection - imagines a kind of intellectual coup in the year 2081 when ``everyone is finally equal.'' George Bergeron, wearing a government-issued handicap implant to keep him from taking unfair advantage of his brain, watches his 14-year-old son, Harrison, stage a rebellion that is snuffed out almost as quickly as it hits the evening news.

In bringing the story to the stage, Daniels - who also directs the production - said he tried to envision the world that Vonnegut created and basically let his imagination run wild. Vonnegut liked the approach since the two men appeared to be on the same thematic wavelength.

``William F. Buckley and the Wall Street Journal took my story to be a comment on affirmative action. Actually, it was a comment on high school,'' said Vonnegut. ``Stan got the same idea.''

Apparently, so did a lot of people. A quick Web search turns up educational lesson plans focusing on questions of equality and freedom, and encouraging students to write letters of concern to Vonnegut's fictional fascistic Handicapper General. Reprinting the story on the Web, an IBM employee from Texas calls ``Harrison Bergeron'' ``probably the single most influential piece of writing I've experienced.''

``It's interesting how many people do know the story, and I know it gets studied a lot in high schools and colleges,'' says Daniels. ``It's nice to know a lot of people recognize it.''

Daniels was introduced to the writings of Vonnegut while a student at the University of Toronto. He later adapted three more Vonnegut stories for Showtime. The two men met in Calgary, Alberta, and ended up sharing a car ride to a barbecue in nearby Banff, a journey that Vonnegut remembers for reasons that have nothing to do with literature or similar thoughts on talented school mates.

``We got instructions on what to do if we ran into a bear,'' recalls Vonnegut. ``You can't run or climb because a bear can do both things. You're supposed to assume a fetal position.''

After seeing a draft of the Showtime ``Bergeron,'' Vonnegut suggested that it would make a good play as well. More than a decade later, Daniels brought an adaptation to Vonnegut, who happily gave over the rights. (Vonnegut won't be able to see the staged ``Harrison Bergeron.'')

That process, Vonnegut says, is the extent of his involvement in adaptations of his work. With the exception of a pair of projects in the early 1970s, the author has left the creation of screen Vonnegut-izing to others.

``All I had to do was just allow my stuff to be optioned, and the producers would hire the best writer they could. All I wanted was the money,'' said Vonnegut. ``Stan is a very reputable writer, and I trust him. Why the hell wouldn't he do a good job with whatever he did?''

Not that he stops paying attention after the check is cashed. Vonnegut greatly liked the 1972 George Roy Hill film of ``Slaughterhouse-Five'' and Keith Gordon's adaptation of ``Mother Night.''

``I won't name names, but some adapters have taken my stuff and turned it into real junk, just awful,'' said Vonnegut. ``They turned out to be lousy writers and ruined the property.''

Although he has roots in musical theater, Daniels confesses that it's been awhile since he's worked in live theater. He has written, directed or produced numerous TV shows, including ``The Mary Tyler Moore Show,'' ``The Betty White Show,'' ``Dear John'' and ``Almost Perfect.'' < To find a Daniels theater credit, you'd have to go back to his school days.

``The last time would have been when I was in Oxford, studying to be a philosophy professor,'' says Daniels. ``I wrote and directed a musical revue that was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and it was very successful.

``I had accepted a position lecturing at Carlton University, but after the reception at Edinburgh, I thought, 'Maybe I'm not cut out to be a teacher after all.' ''

HARRISON BERGERON

Where: Lillian Theatre, 1076 N. Lillian St., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday; through May 26.

Tickets: $17.50 to $20. Call (323) 655-8587.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 15, 2002
Words:889
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