Belber drama is rare new play to preem in legit spotlight

On April 8, Stephen Belber’s “Match” debuts at the Plymouth Theater. When was the last time that Broadway hosted the world preem of a play by a writer making his Broadway debut? So far, everyone playing the “Match” game is coming up empty-handed.

Matthew Rego of lead producer Araca Group can’t think of a precedent: “We have our interns researching it,” he says. (Variety went back 20 years before throwing in the towel.)

Araca Group has had success on Broadway with new shows such as “Urinetown” and “Wicked,” but both of those musicals got tryouts before braving Broadway.

In recent seasons, only Neil Simon’s “45 Seconds From Broadway” (2001) and Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” (2002) opened cold on Broadway — but they were written by long-established talents.

The reason for the scarcity: High risk. Despite their imprimatur, both “Goat” and “45 Seconds From Broadway” failed to recoup on Broadway.

Risk is not as great in the nonprofit world, but even Lincoln Center Theater, which hosted two world preems during the 1996-97 Broadway season (Christopher Durang’s “Sex and Longing” and Wendy Wasserstein’s “An American Daughter”) has curtailed the practice: It’s produced none since then.

“The Mitzi Newhouse is the most hospitable space we have,” LCT’s Andre Bishop says of his org’s smaller theater, “and that’s the one we should use for new work.”

Nowadays, producers eyeing new plays for Broadway usually take an option, enhance a production at a nonprofit, and then wait for critical reaction.

Belber had that scenario in mind when he gave his friend Jan Maxwell a copy of “Match” to give to her friend, who was performing in “Fortune’s Fool.”

“Jan was the go-between,” says Frank Langella, who read the play, “loved it,” and performed “three or four readings” before the Araca Group signed on a year ago. Especially intriguing was the fact that Belber had based his lead character, Tobi, on a real person.

“I’ve never played someone who exists, who is alive,” says Langella. “We’ve talked. He was here for the first preview, knitting away.” (“Match” begins with Tobi’s knitting a very long scarf.)

As for the Araca connection, it wasn’t all serendipity.

Belber had gone to Juilliard with David Auburn, whose first play, “Skyscraper,” was produced Off Broadway by Araca. Auburn made introductions to the group (Hank Unger, Michael and Matthew Rego), which led to their producing Belber’s first play, “The Death of Frank,” at an Off Off Broadway venue.

Since then, the scribe has co-authored “The Laramie Project” and wrote “Tape.” The latter’s Off Off Broadway berth spawned a movie starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, which in turn helped finance the Off Broadway production in 2001.

Like those earlier works, “Match” is based on investigation. A Juilliard dance instructor named Tobi (Langella) is visited by a married couple (Ray Liotta and Jane Adams), whose interview for a Ph.D. dissertation rapidly morphs into an interrogation.

Scale vs. subject

Subject matter dictated the producers’ decisions to open “Goat” and “45 Seconds” on Broadway.

Elizabeth I. McCann says there were questions as to how out-of-town theatergoers might react to talk about bestiality in “The Goat.”

And regarding “45 Seconds,” the show’s producer, Emanuel Azenberg, says: “Neil’s comedy was so New York-centric. It was set in the Polish Tea Room. It just made sense to open it here.”

The decision to preem “Match” in a Broadway house depended on something much more elusive.

“A more intimate theater would not have been helpful,” says Belber. “It would have diminished the real largeness of the central character.”

Tobi may be real, but he is also big. Those who’ve appreciated Langella in his last few Broadway outings, from “The Father” to “Fortune’s Fool,” will not find the scale of his performance diminished here.

Producer Matthew Rego remains a little less philosophical than his playwright. “We were eventually coming here anyway,” he says of gambling the show’s $1.5 million.

No guarantees

Out of town tryouts can be pricey gambles, too.

The Broadway gambit did require a few changes in logistics. Compared with the Araca’s “Frankie and Johnny” revival, “Match” received two more weeks of previews (28 perfs total) and nine more days of rehearsals.

“There’s a lot more rewriting than I thought I’d need,” says Belber. “The big stuff was done in rehearsals, but there is a ripple effect. Small changes in turn change something else.”

Then the gods added legit’s final, most unpredictable element: the audience.

It may be his Broadway debut, but Belber already knows, “The producers were smart to have a lot of previews.”

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