‘Angels’ flies alone in grim B’way year

In the theatrical annals, 1993 will surely be recorded as the year of “Angels in America.” But the Broadway on which “Angels” descended has been a grimmer hell than ever for nearly every other play in search of an audience. This may well prove to have been the year the commercial theater powers buried any remaining notion that non-musicals are welcome.

The statistics bear this out, in their way: In 1993, 12 commercially produced plays opened on Broadway; 13 if we include “Face Value,” which never made it to opening night; 14 if we count the two parts of “Angels in America” as separate entries. Those numbers alone are cause for alarm.

As of today, there are all of three new plays running on Broadway: Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Sisters Rosensweig,” Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” And in the wake of a busy and brutal fall, there are no new plays slated in the first six months of 1994 (though there are a few hopefuls in the pipeline).

But more than numbers tell this story. In a strange kind of collaboration between producers and theatergoers that has as much to do with economics as with art, the Broadway environment has become actively hostile to plays. The best illustration of this has been the failure of the Broadway Alliance to attract plays, producers and, ultimately, theatergoers.

The plan caps production expenditures and ticket prices but has never enjoyed enthusiastic support from Broadway’s major players. Instead, the trail of failed productions has drained the project of excitement, and producers are already convinced that the Alliance is just code for second-rate.

Yet Frank Gilroy’s “Any Given Day” was presented in the fall under the Alliance aegis; while the play certainly was flawed, it was far from a crime against art. Moreover, it boasted an acting ensemble as good as any Broadway has seen in years. Nevertheless, audiences weren’t willing to take a chance, even at the reduced top ticket price of $ 35.

Outside the Alliance, the picture remains every bit as bleak. Consider the cases of “The Song of Jacob Zulu,””The Twilight of the Golds” and “Wonderful Tennessee,” all of which were quick flops. “Zulu” was another structurally imperfect play, but it featured a thrilling score sung onstage by the South African a capella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Hardly any takers.

“Twilight” marked the Broadway debut of a playwright in his 20s, explored a controversial subject and offered up Jennifer Grey in a starring role. It was the kind of bad play that in an earlier era would have a life on Broadway because it got people arguing about a hot topic — in this case, how a family might respond to the information that a pregnancy is going to result in the birth of a gay son. For today’s audience, that wasn’t enough to keep the show going.

Saddest of all was the case of “Wonderful Tennessee,” Brian Friel’s follow-up to his very popular and critically acclaimed “Dancing at Lughnasa.” The mixed but respectful reviews appeared to give the audience an excuse to pass the show by, and they did just that. There hasn’t been a more telling demonstration of how disenfranchised the Broadway audience has become.

The result of this malaise is that the whole Broadway organism — playwrights , producers, backstage talent and theatergoers — has transferred its allegiance elsewhere, whether to Hollywood, Off Broadway or nonprofit resident theaters. Consider “Oleanna,” which shared with “Twilight of the Golds” both a certain trashiness and an ability to spark arguments among patrons. David Mamet’s play has run more than a year downtown (it is slated to close Jan. 16), brought in a youthful audience and satisfied a desire for live theater that’s actually about something.

Broadway has abandoned that mission. Even comedies now represent a high risk. In 1993, “Angels in America” has been the towering exception that underscores an unhappy truth. To a whole generation of playwrights — actually, for a couple of generations of playwrights — Broadway has become irrelevant.

The past year saw the major Broadway producing organizations scrambling to develop musical-theater talent, whose output can provide a huge return. The same folks need to begin paying more than lip service to a comparable effort to develop non-musical theater. Absent such an effort, those glorious angels will be hovering above a ghost town.

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