Broadway has three Pulitzer-winning plays and lots of stage fright

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Perhaps the millennium is truly at hand: When Robert Sherwood's drama "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre yesterday, that made three Pulitzer Prize-winning plays on Broadway -- the others are "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches" and "The Kentucky Cycle."

Of course, "Abe Lincoln" is old stuff: It won the Pulitzer in 1938. But with eight other major Broadway shows making their debut this month, November had more openings than any fall month since 1981 -- and the openings included "Perestroika" (the second half of "Angels in America") and the Neil Simon comedy, "Laughter on the 23rd Floor."

As if to prove beyond a doubt that this fall season is flukish, November also featured the departure of Frank Rich, the New York Times' chief theater critic for 13 years.

Broadway, which was characterized by producer Michael David in a recent Time magazine article as "Vegas for plays," seems to be violating its own "conventional wisdom": Hold the shows until spring to get a boost from the Tony Awards.

Like Hollywood studios squeezing their action blockbusters into two or three big-money summer weekends, Broadway producers the past decade have shrunk the theater season to less than two months. Much of the New York season has become a brief, frantic prelude to the crap shoot of the Tony Awards show in June.

"I don't really have a good answer for what's happening this fall," says Jack Viertel, creative director of the Jujamcyn theater chain, which is co-producing "Angels in America" and the Richard Chamberlain revival of "My Fair Lady," which will open at the Virginia Theatre Dec. 6. "But I've got some theories."

Mr. Viertel points out that conventional wisdom dictates that a producer should aim for a big boost from the Tony Awards to carry his show through the summer. "But the really tough season is actually in the winter, January through March," he says. Which means any Tony Awards boost from the previous summer won't help; it's been too long a haul.

Mr. Viertel thinks a new counter-strategy may be developing: Open in the fall and, with good reviews, you can make it through the winter. Then any Tony Awards in June will give the show a second wind for the summer. By the next fall, the show will have been up for a year, meaning it will either have made its money back or established itself with the tourist audience.

"Will this work?" Mr. Viertel asks. "You got me. As I say, it's a theory. We'll see this season."

The long view

Jeremy Gerard, theater editor for Variety, the entertainment industry journal, points out that the fall rush isn't an aberration when viewed through a longer lens. "This used to be the way it was always done," he says. "It was how the theater season opened. It's the last decade that actually has been the oddity."

When looked at individually, the fall productions provide other reasons for popping up in November. It doesn't matter when you open a new Neil Simon comedy. They're just about the only sure bets around.

It's also true that two of the biggest productions -- the nine-part "Kentucky Cycle," which opened to mixed reviews, and "Cyrano: The Musical" -- are produced by relative novices. David Richenthal's $2.5 million "Kentucky Cycle" is the lawyer's first project on Broadway -- and the most expensive nonmusical production in Broadway history. It's a huge endeavor -- 21 actors playing 100 roles, covering 200 years of American history -- but because of its reviews, its prospects are almost as bleak as its depiction of life in the coal mines.

The same beginner's status is true for "Cyrano's" Joop van den Ende, the Holland-based producer who has a great deal of experience staging Dutch versions of such shows as "Cabaret" and "The Phantom of the Opera," but who is rolling very big dice for his New York debut. The ante for "Cyrano" is $7 million, putting it nearly in the same costly league as "Phantom."

The exit of Mr. Rich, the Times' drama critic, who is becoming the paper's pop culture columnist in December, has added to the general sense of uncertainty, although probably few in the industry will bewail the departure of the man dubbed "the Butcher of Broadway."

But the entire nature of the Times' stage coverage -- all-important to the theater industry -- has been transformed. Earlier this year, the paper's longtime second-string theater critic, Mel Gussow, was replaced by a young magazine writer, Ben Brantley, who so far has proved himself almost as cautious a critic as Mr. Gussow. And with the departure of Mr. Rich will come the elevation of the Times' Sunday theater columnist, David Richards, to the aisle seat, while 69-year-old film critic Vincent Canby will take over Mr. Richards' Sunday slot.

For most people, this game of musical chairs will mean less than zero, but it has already caused speculation to course through an industry that is something of a fiefdom for the Times. Mr. Gerard, for instance, reported in Variety that the producers of "Perestroika" were determined to stick with their Nov. 23 premiere -- after postponing the date twice. The producers wanted that date because Mr. Rich's review of the first half of "Angels in America" was friendlier than Mr. Richards' -- and the producers didn't want to risk being reviewed by the incoming critic.

The big news this season is the bonanza of lavish musical revivals, sparked by last year's success of "Guys and Dolls": the highly praised "She Loves Me," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "My Fair Lady," "Damn Yankees," "Grease" (directed by Tommy Tune), a possible "Showboat" from director Hal Prince and the acclaimed Royal National Theatre's "Carousel."

But the many revivals disguise the fact that the same declining trends and economic forces continue to work on the street. There are only two new musicals, for example, and both are borrowed from the screen: the adaptation of Walt Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," debuting Thursday in Houston before opening on Broadway in the spring, and the adaptation of "The Red Shoes," the 1948 backstage-at-the-ballet movie, which also opens Thursday, at the Gershwin.

Scarcity of dramas

Similarly, the unusual two-part epics, "Angels" and "Kentucky Cycle," with all of their welcome range and power, tend to hide the near-disappearance of dramas, particularly serious, midrange dramas. Worry rippled through Broadway when Brian Friel's "Wonderful Tennessee" -- the Irish playwright's first drama on Broadway since his Tony Award-winning "Dancing at Lughnasa" -- opened to a respectful review from the Times last month, and the producers promptly pulled the plug.

Outside of "Twilight of the Golds," which has also closed, and "Any Given Day" by Frank Gilroy ("The Subject Was Roses"), which opened two weeks ago to loud snores, only Sam Shepard's "Simpatico" is scheduled for the rest of the entire season.

Here are thumbnail sketches of what's already up on New York stages:

* As usual, most of the fun has been off-Broadway with a slew of sharp, dark, comic plays. John Patrick Shanley, the Oscar-winning author of "Moonstruck," decided to bite the hand that feeds him with "Four Dogs and a Bone" (at the Manhattan Theatre Club), a slim but sharp poke at Hollywood. Nowhere as relentless as David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow," "Four Dogs" is still Shanley's most entertaining play since "Italian-American Reconciliation."

* New York critics received Nicky Silver's "Pterodactyls" (at the Vineyard) with hosanna-like comparisons to the late Joe Orton ,, ("What the Butler Saw"). Which is odd because Mr. Silver's hilariously macabre tale of a gay young man with AIDS returning to his rich, wacked-out Philadelphia family plays like pure Christopher Durang ("The Marriage of Bette and Boo"). The title derives from the dinosaur bones the young man keeps digging up in his back yard, and the link to his own dysfunctional family is obvious. Hope Davis' performance as the young man's sister is almost lunar in its charming, comic oddness.

* Howard Korder's "The Lights," a bleakly savage and comic take on urban America, has been stunningly staged by Mark Wing-Davey at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theatre.

* Neil Simon's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," which opened on Broadway a week ago, is the playwright's reminiscences about his days spent writing for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" in the late '50s. The material is certainly familiar from the 1982 film "My Favorite Year," which was turned into a dud musical last season. Jerry Zaks, who directed "Guys and Dolls," has brought along that show's terrific Nathan Lane to play the Sid Caesar role.

* And "Perestroika" also opened last week. After "Angels in America's" first half won the Pulitzer and four Tony Awards last season, there's probably no show more anticipated. Tony Kushner's apocalyptic drama resolves the fates of several couples, gay and straight, all of them caught up with AIDS, the self-loathing, right-wing politics of Roy Cohn and a mysterious angel who crashed through the roof of the set at the end of "Millennium Approaches."

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