Brit legit tough on Americans abroad
LONDON — British boards are laden with a new crop of hit American imports of late, a circumstance that would seem to back up the notion that American and Brit legit have a mutual admiration society.
Neil LaBute’s “The Shape of Things” did so well at London’s Almeida Theater at King’s Cross that it returned this summer for an encore engagement. Across town at the Hampstead Theater, Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Dinner With Friends” played to near-capacity in the 174-seater and was extended for three weeks; it may get a commercial West End stand after Christmas. “A Lie of the Mind” is at the Donmar Warehouse, the Sam Shepard play’s second major London showing in 14 years, while Russell Lees’ 1995 Off Broadway entry “Nixon’s Nixon” opened July 20 at the Comedy.
And over on Shaftesbury Avenue, 73-year-old American songstress Barbara Cook is back in town, this time to sing Sondheim; a major revival of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” starring Brendan Fraser and Ned Beatty, follows her into the Lyric Theater, starting previews Sept. 5.
A closer look reveals that the transatlantic love affair seems decidedly one-sided, however.
“There’s great respect for British plays” when they come to New York, said Wendy Wasserstein, the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning scribe of “The Heidi Chronicles.” “Martin McDonagh and ‘The Weir’ get a wonderful reception (in New York) and they may well deserve it, but there’s an openness to the response, and I don’t always feel the reverse is true.”
Lynne Meadow, a.d. of Off Broadway’s Manhattan Theater Club, has watched several of her venue’s plays die in London (“Sylvia,” “Collected Stories,” “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune”); only one — Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain” — saw any real success. “There seems to be a certain kind of work that just is not embraced” in London, she shrugged.
Pulitzer winner Marsha Norman (” ‘night, Mother”) cited “a reluctance in London to give American work a fair shake, while American audiences and critics tend to think British imports are better than anything we could possibly do.”
Norman most recently was repped on the West End by her book for the musical “The Secret Garden,” a Broadway long-runner that flopped at the Aldwych Theater early in June.
“I would think more than twice,” said Julian Schlossberg, the New York producer (“Vita and Virginia”), “before I would want to open a play in London. The economics are very good — still much better than New York — but the attrition rate is even higher.”
Even a Pulitzer Prize doesn’t guarantee you won’t suffer abroad — as “The Heidi Chronicles,” “Rent,” “How I Learned to Drive” and “Wit” all did, to varying degrees.
London isn’t necessarily impressed by New York kudos: “Breathtakingly vacuous,” wrote one London paper of the 1997 West End preem of Terrence McNally’s “Master Class.” Sure enough, the New York Tony winner was a speedy London goner — at a loss of about $550,000.
Ironically, sometimes it’s the New York flops that are best reviewed in England. Neil Simon’s Broadway fast-fade “Proposals” won him some of his most admiring British reviews when it opened at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. Wasserstein said one of the best notices anywhere for her recent Lincoln Center entry “Old Money” came from London’s Sheridan Morley in the Spectator: He called the comedy “brilliantly nostalgic and infinitely charming.”
Americans Christopher Shinn, Naomi Wallace and Rebecca Gilman possess a high profile in London, partly because each has premiered work here rather than waiting for a New York imprimatur that may not, in fact, be helpful.
The unknown Americans
On the other hand, American faves such as Paul Rudnick, Christopher Durang and Kenneth Lonergan are just three of the well-regarded American playwrights who are virtually unknown in England. “Side Man” got a so-so response on the West End, while “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” flopped.
The transatlantic relationship, said Simon Curtis, director of London’s current “Dinner With Friends,” “is a very complicated thing: Everyone loves America and yet is also sort of nervous about it. There’s so much American culture in our faces that people want theater to be protected from it.”
As executive producer of the Donmar Warehouse, Caro Newling and her a.d., Sam Mendes, have programmed numerous U.S. works into their Covent Garden venue over the past nine years, starting with Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” in 1992.
This year’s lineup has been top-heavy with American work, from Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” and David Mamet’s “Boston Marriage” — the latter transferring to the West End in December — through to “A Lie of the Mind” at present and a revival of Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” in September.
What, then, is Newling’s recipe for American theatrical success in the U.K.? “The best way to open an American play is literally tiptoe it in and present it,” said Newling.
The Donmar programmed “Three Days of Rain” several seasons ago as part of a spring season of American imports; unheralded, the play opened to rave reviews and was brought back for a second run that averaged a hefty 95% attendance across eight weeks.
By contrast, a New York sensation like Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer-winning “How I Learned to Drive” averaged 43% capacity at the Donmar — notwithstanding a production from John Crowley and leading performance from Helen McCrory that were easily the match of the play’s New York incarnation.
Perhaps prizes simply matter less abroad.
“What is a Pulitzer Prize?” said Peter Franklin, Vogel’s agent at William Morris in New York. “It’s an American prize for Americans given by Americans.”
Tony Kushner, the American dramatist who is equally highly regarded in London, explained: “Winning prizes, great reviews, being well-known as a writer — all these things have a different currency in England.”
Kushner’s “Angels in America” was seen at London’s Royal National Theater well before it ever got to New York.
“The British theatergoing public, at least from my perspective, seems to be more independent-minded,” he said.
That can result, of course, in a chilly London reception for American hits, which is particularly dispiriting for those American writers who have always admired their British counterparts.
Brits Caryl Churchill, Harold Pinter and David Hare are regularly mentioned by their American colleagues as playwriting gods.
Nor are these Americans ignorant of London.
LaBute lived in Wimbledon in 1991, where he began work on a PhD. dissertation on the work of the Royal Court under the tenure of its former a.d., Max Stafford-Clark.
Wasserstein wrote “Heidi” while on a fellowship to London in the 1980s, and David Auburn scripted his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning “Proof” while living in North London in 1998.
Still, the local taste for American work tends to embrace portraits of venality or low life (such as “The Shape of Things”) but not the John Donne scholar at the heart of “Wit” or the literary-minded women who drive Margulies’ “Collected Stories.” The latter two flopped on the West End.
Seduced by the dark side
“When American plays simply deal with human behavior,” said Margulies, “we fall into a discomfort zone in London. There seems to be a problem for those American plays that don’t use the social-economic landscape of people like Mamet or Miller that reveal a darker side of American capitalism.”
Of his widely traveled “Nixon’s Nixon,” which has so far had three separate British engagements, Boston-based Lees said, “It’s certainly true that the classic American play is domestic, and this is very different; that’s been one of its selling points.”
Patrick Herold, owner of the Helen Merrill agency in New York, put it more bluntly: “If an American play is lowbrow or makes Americans look buffoonish, that seems to succeed far better than anything that is or attempts to be smart or serious, like ‘Wit’ or (Steve Martin’s) ‘Picasso at the Lapin Agile.’ The British sensibility is, ‘No, no, no; we know how to do that. You don’t.’ ”
Not that such perceptions are likely to inhibit American work coming to London.
“Proof” is deliberately biding its time but could reach Blighty next spring, while Ken Ludwig, Keith Reddin, Angus MacLachlan, August Wilson and Rebecca Gilman all have London productions on tap (in Ludwig’s case, three).
New York producer Daryl Roth, who has had two U.S. transfers flop on the West End (“Old Wicked Songs,” “Wit”) while one mightily succeeded (“Three Tall Women”), sums it up: “London’s tricky, very tricky. But it’s still London.”