Lett's Off B'way drama looks toward recoupment

NEW YORK — “Bug” is the exception that proves the current Off Broadway rule, that commercial productions of new plays are a dicey investment.

Tracy Letts’ motel-gothic drama is that increasingly rare commodity: an Off Broadway show that’s closing in on recoupment.

The play opened Feb. 29 at the 199-seat Barrow Street Theater and hasn’t put in a week in the red since then. In 2004, that’s a record of sorts for a new play.

Lead producer Scott Morfee isn’t complaining, but he isn’t celebrating, either.

“Advances are such that you’re studying one to two weeks out,” he said, “not six or eight weeks. That is not healthy.”

Day-of sales often account for 30% of a perf’s tickets.

“Bug” was capitalized at around $280,000. Investors have gotten back more than half their money, with full recoupment due sometime in early fall.

“We’ve extended ticket sales to mid-January. I’m cautiously optimistic we can get that far,” Morfee says.

“Bug” is as good as it gets these days Off Broadway. And it isn’t lost on Morfee that “Bug” falls short of the producer’s previous hit by Letts, “Killer Joe,” which sold out its first three months during the 1998-99 season.

Morfee looks back fondly at that Off Broadway season, when “Killer Joe” was playing alongside hits including “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Wit” and “Gross Indecency.”

“Business never recovered from 9/11,” says Morfee, who helped lead the fight to publicize downtown shows after the disaster. “This business has not rebounded the way people think it has or want it to.”

Morfee misses the one-two punch of two Times reviews, which “Killer Joe” got back in 1998 when Sunday critic Vincent Canby followed Ben Brantley’s rave.

These days, Off Broadway reviews come out weeks, sometimes months after a show opens. The New Yorker took 10 weeks to review “Bug.”

” ‘Bug’ is a healthy show,” says Morfee, “but it’s not a runaway hit.”

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