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New Territory

Rita Rudner has what they call a "sit-down" engagement on the Strip, but she and manager-husband Martin Bergman never sit still.

"We try everything," the comedian says. The couple’s current venture is their co-written comic play "Room 776." The co-production with Las Vegas Little Theatre debuts today in the theater troupe’s playhouse, about three miles west of Harrah’s Las Vegas, where Rudner is in her second year as resident headliner.

The comedian says her British husband, whom she met when he was a comedy promoter, is a "triple-A personality. … There’s no talking about (a project) for 11 years. It just happens with him. He does it."

Since the couple moved to Las Vegas in 2000, their side projects have included a syndicated talk show, "Ask Rita," the late-night improv revue "Boo!" and a comic crime novel, "Turning the Tables."

The play’s opening comes as PBS stations around the country are airing a "Live from Las Vegas" special of Rudner’s stand-up act taped at Harrah’s in February. And her new book of essays, "I Still Have It … I Just Can’t Remember Where I Put It," arrived in stores last month.

The latter two reinforce Rudner’s stand-up act, but "Room 776" explores new territory.

"We kind of look around, and instead of saying, ‘What’s here, can we copy it?’ We say, ‘What’s not here? And can we do something original?’ " Rudner says.

In this case, Bergman says he gets annoyed when people say audiences on the Strip "would never sit still for a play."

"When I was producing shows in Australia, one of the big success formats was to take a play — not ‘Hedda Gabler’, but something light — and cast it with known television actors. It would do tremendously well," he adds. "You have to be a singer or a specialty act to appear on the Strip. But there are actors who would consider a limited run."

Beyond the occasional production of "Love Letters," comic plays haven’t been on the Las Vegas menu since the 1970s and ’80s dinner theater era of the Plaza (then called the Union Plaza). Bergman and Rudner began to brainstorm a comedy of 90 minutes or less, and decided that one set in a Las Vegas hotel room is about as universal as a concept can get.

Rudner and Hooters Hotel headliner Bobby Slayton starred in a ticketed table-reading of "Room 776" in January, after which it was lengthened to add more comic banter. This next step is to see how a fully produced version looks and sounds when delivered by other actors.

"My husband said he still loved me but wasn’t in love with me. I told him I wanted the house, but I didn’t want him in the house," the female star, Nancy Denton, tells the audience with a line reading that somehow avoids sounding like Rudner’s familiar lilt.

The play is about two damaged singles accidentally booked into the same room on a capacity Las Vegas weekend, with neither willing to give up the room. Needless to say, odd-couple sparks ensue when the aspiring poker player (Scott Ast) meets the dumped but not-quite-divorced woman in need of a getaway (Denton).

Rudner and Bergman say they reverted to the working relationship that produced the screenplay for "Peter’s Friends," the 1992 movie directed by Kenneth Branagh, Bergman’s friend from Cambridge University. "We kind of know how to do that. After 20 years, we’ve sort of got that down," Bergman says.

"We liked fleshing out the characters," Rudner says. "We liked bringing in their emotional baggage. It kept fueling itself."

Rudner’s new book of essays came more naturally than either the play or the novel, which explored Elmore Leonard’s comic crime territory. ("It was my idea, unfortunately," Bergman says.)

"I wanted to take it a little easier on myself this time and do something that came a little more naturally to me," Rudner says of the book confronting life in her 50s and being the adopted mother of a 5-year-old.

"Again, we look around and see what isn’t there," Rudner says. "I think all stand-up comedy is really aimed at ages 18 to 39. There are generations of people — I know, because I get them every night in my show — that enjoy kind of a gentler sort of humor that isn’t being perpetrated on television these days.

"That’s what I’m finding with the PBS special. … There’s a general lack of stand-up comedy for sophisticated audiences on television, and I’m hoping to be able to provide some."

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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