Arena stages coup, nabbing rights to ‘Yesterday’

Yale Rep, Seattle Rep, Guthrie had been turned down

WASHINGTON — Not one but two productions of Garson Kanin’s 1946 comedy “Born Yesterday” will be mounted in October, by D.C.’s Arena Stage and South Coast Repertory Theater in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Two revivals of an American classic might not seem like major news, but for the fact that artistic directors of regional theaters across the U.S. have tried — and failed — to land those rights for years.

But it’s Molly Smith, Arena Stage’s a.d., who finally gets to mount Kanin’s skewering of Washington politics after five years of rejection by the Kanin estate’s TFT Corp. The Arena crusade has played as drama or farce, depending on one’s perspective.

It is not alone. Yale Rep, Seattle Rep and Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater also have been turned down, according to Arena’s senior dramaturg, Mark Bly, who has toiled for all three. “It became a running joke with them,” he says.

So what gives?

Those and other theaters have run into the same obstacle — TFT executive Martha Wilson, manager of Kanin’s literary properties and personal guardian of the late playwright’s estate. To say Wilson is particular about how and to whom she licenses the play is an understatement.

“Mr. Kanin asked us to urge and even demand when granting rights that careful attention be paid to the three leads — Harry Brock, age 39, Billie Dawn, 29, and Paul Verrall, in his mid-30s,” says Wilson. “He thought age-appropriate casting would energize the play and preserve its viability. But too often, much older actors are cast in the parts. I cannot express how difficult it is to convince theaters and directors to honor his wishes.”

So Wilson clamped the lid on “high-profile” productions of the play. Following a national tour and Broadway revival in 1988-89, requests to produce “Born Yesterday” became much harder to obtain, while productions were restricted entirely in Southern California and the East Coast, claims Wilson. She says she has never counted the number of requests received, or rejections given.

The estate exec gives no indication whether the 1993 Melanie Griffith/Don Johnson film remake contributed to keep the play out of circulation.

Wilson says the org kept “Born Yesterday” off the East Coast market during the late ’90s as it negotiated with several producers for another revival. When those failed to pan out, TFT began working with director Gerald Gutierrez for another New York production, a project abandoned after Gutierrez’s death in December 2003. “We then reconsidered releasing the play to East Coast regional theaters,” she says.

Wilson claims that while there has been no relaxation of casting standards, all regional bans have been lifted and more productions are being granted as the play nears its 50th anni. Wilson OK’d a request by Seattle’s ACT Theater to produce the play in June after approving the lead thesps selected by director Warner Shook. Shook will stage the South Coast Rep production with the same trio heading its cast.

But a production planned for February by Houston’s Alley Theater, with Marisa Tomei playing Billie Dawn, seems to have caught Wilson by surprise. She declined to comment about greenlighting the show until she has learned more about the cast.

As for Arena Stage, Smith says she and exec director Stephen Richard grew so tired of the annual rejections of a project they felt was clearly suited for their theater that they decided to sweeten the offer. She invited Wilson to attend audition call-backs to ensure key roles were being filled to her satisfaction. They also offered to mount a weeklong Kanin festival during the run, complete with readings of two lesser-known plays — “Peccadillo” and “Remembering Mr. Maugham.” Lastly, they pressed Wilson on the logic of producing the play in the nation’s capital at the city’s premier venue.

So Arena’s wait is finally over. Director Kyle Donnelly will stage the play with Jonathan Fried as Harry, Suli Holum as Billie Dawn and Michael Bakkensen as Paul. It opens Oct. 6 and runs through Nov. 6.

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