Fox Fires Blazing On Both Sides Of The Pond

Call them the two tall women, or merely the greatest British actresses of their generation, but however you look at it, Maggie Smith and Vanessa Redgrave are making West End producer Robert Fox a very happy – and successful – man.

“I happen to think they’re both pretty remarkable,” Fox, 42, says of his leading ladies, longtime colleagues of the producer who have given him concurrent runaway hits on both sides of the Atlantic. His Off Broadway production of “Vita and Virginia” (co-produced with Lewis Allen, Julian Schlossberg et al.) is well into profit, with Redgrave (and Eileen Atkins, herself no slouch as a performer or as a New York draw), regularly playing at or near capacity to delighted Bloomsburyites at the Union Square Theater.

On the West End, Fox is London partner to New York producing team Elizabeth I. McCann, Daryl Roth and Jeffrey Ash on Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women,” and has found himself overseeing easily the hottest straight play of the season. The reason? Local interest in the Lazarus-like return of Albee, heightened by the star presence of Smith as the feisty nonagenarian. Anthony Page’s production has been SRO since its mid-November bow at Wyndham’s, where it has extended its run five weeks through April 22 – and may return in the fall, cast intact, for an encore engagement. Explains Fox: “Maggie loves doing the play.”

The comparable economics of the two plays reaffirms what has long been the case: The West End and Off Broadway cost more or less the same. Capitalized originally at &pounds;220,000 ($350,000), “Three Tall Women” exceeded its original budget by some $95,000 when original director Karel Reisz bowed out to be replaced by Page, and performances were delayed. But by the New Year, the play was in the black and has been grossing $150,000 a week at capacity – almost double the $80,000 break-even, according to Fox.

For the extension, the play will drop Monday nights and do the same seven-performance Tuesday-Saturday schedule adopted several years back for the West End run of Alec Guinness in “A Walk in the Woods.” Its $640,000 advance is thought to be a West End near-record for a straight play, equaled only by Fox’s own 1993 production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” with Smith, and by the most recent pre-opening take for Peter Ustinov’s solo show at the Haymarket.

Fox’s success with “Vita and Virginia” may be even more bracing given that the producer “lost the lot” on a previous West End run of the two-hander, budgeted then at $150,000, in which Atkins’ Virginia Woolf was paired with Penelope Wilton’s Vita Sackville-West. The Off Broadway version cost more than twice as much, but has the allure of Redgrave.

“V and V,” said Fox, breaks at $90,000 a week on full royalties, and during the usually lean January period never fell more than $4,000 below its $155,000 capacity. The box office heat is expected to continue through the March 19 closing, at which point Redgrave returns to London and Atkins segues to the Broadway production of “Infidelities.” Of the Bloomsbury saga’s New York appeal, Fox points to “a hunger for quality language in the theater. This kind of evening is more of an event in New York; London audiences can be very blase.”

B’way bow shunned

Does Fox wish in retrospect he had taken the production to Broadway? “Not at all,” he says. “It’s not really a play, as a lot of the press have pointed out; a Broadway run would have given people the wrong expectations.” Fox’s Broadway record to date, meanwhile, is one for three: While both Jay Presson Allen’s “The Big Love,” with Tracey Ullman, and the musical “Chess” were fast flops, his co-production of “Lettice and Lovage,” with Smith in her Tony-winning performance, recouped its $1.2 million cost “really quickly.” Indeed, Fox has yet to lose a dime in five stage outings with Smith, and adds that the box office pressure on “Three Tall Women” is “probably the most intense” yet.

With four stage plays in the last decade, his professional ties to Redgrave are almost as extensive – and are personally much more so, since his second wife was her daughter, Natasha Richardson. The collaboration continues in May with the American release of “A Month by the Lake,” a Fox-produced film for Miramax starring Redgrave, Uma Thurman and Edward Fox, the elder of Fox’s two thespian brothers. (Other brother James is now on Broadway in “Uncle Vanya”; late father Robin was a producer and agent, and their maternal grandfather was Frederick Lonsdale, the playwright whose comedies of manners had their heyday in the 1920s.)

Based on an H.E. Bates story, the $6 million movie marks Fox’s first large-screen venture since he exec produced “Another Country” over a decade ago for Goldcrest and Alan Marshall. Why the gap? “I hadn’t felt competent enough to produce (a film) on my own,” says Fox, who in between did produce an exemplary TV version, directed by Richard Eyre, of Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer,” with Richardson and – who else? – Maggie Smith. With the new film, “I felt I knew enough to be able to hold up my side of the bargain.”

Looking ahead, Fox has an Anglo-French TV project in the works, and is at the “literally just talk” phase of a spring 1996 West End revival of Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” that would star Alan Bates and Diana Rigg once Dame Diana finishes her National Theater chores in “Mother Courage.”

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