Season sees commercial bows of two fest alumni plays
NEW YORK — The spirit that pervades the New York Intl. Fringe Festival every August is largely about inclusion, experimentation and risk. But as proven by several upcoming productions, the tune changes for plays that rise from the festival’s ranks to find a home Off Broadway.Faced with the demands of commercial survival in Gotham, the Fringe graduates must translate that spirit of adventure into a magnet for a particular audience niche. And those graduates are multiplying. In addition to conception musical “Infertility,” currently running, this season sees commercial bows of two plays, “Dog Sees God” and “Confessions of a Mormon Boy.” Three more fringe alumni — political satire “The Miss Education of Jenna Bush,” gay drama “The Lightning Field” and comedy “The Irish Curse” — all are in the process of locking down dates and venues for 2006. For some of these shows, the target niche is identical to that of the Fringe itself: hipsters. Few upcoming shows sound hipper than “Dog Sees God,” a dark satire by Bert K. Royal that wowed Fringe auds in 2004 and opens Dec. 15 at the Century Center. The play is a violent, sex-addled spoof on the Peanuts gang, with a hot young cast that includes Ian Somerhalder (“Lost”) and Eliza Dushku (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”). Royal freely admits his play will benefit from its stars’ offbeat appeal. “The ‘Lost’ chatrooms and the ‘Buffy’ chatrooms are all abuzz,” he says. “And from what I’ve been reading online, a lot of the (potential audience) have never been to the theater before.” Ironically, though, the show’s allure for TV auds may serve as a stumbling block in terms of broadening its reach. Cast members like Dushku and Kelli Garner (“The Aviator”) have little stage experience, and though the ensemble also features legit regulars like Keith Nobbs and Logan Marshall Green, the show could suffer with patrons who perceive it as a vehicle for slumming TV stars. But that risky hook is arguably a challenge faced within the Fringe itself. Simply by being chosen to participate, every show in the festival acquires an automatic marketing angle. But the winners are those that can both capitalize on the Fringe imprimatur and move past it. Royal notes that during its festival run, the auds for “Dog” were initially “younger, hipper Fringe types,” but the houses ultimately were filled with a wider demographic. A similarly broad crowd has been attending regional perfs of “Confessions of a Mormon Boy,” a 2004 Fringe grad bowing at the Soho Playhouse in January. A one-man show written and performed by Steven Fales, “Mormon Boy” follows the author’s journey from closeted suburban father to drug-addicted gay prostitute. The story itself is an obvious marketing hook, and the playwright reports that members of target groups (Mormons, gay fathers) have traveled thousands of miles to see the show. However, as he travels with his play across the country — there have been sold-out runs as far afield as Miami and Chicago — Fales says, “My audiences are getting straighter and straighter.” Combined with strong critical nods, this breadth of attendance suggests the piece has genuine legs. Fales says his momentum was strong before he hit the Fringe, so he feels less beholden to the festival for helping make his name. “What the Fringe gave me was the chance to see how ‘Mormon Boy’ plays in New York,” he says. But playing in New York alone, without a festival’s guaranteed press and attention, means facing an entirely new set of hurdles. No matter how good they are, shows like “Dog” and “Mormon Boy” still will be vying for attention in a crowded legit season. And their niche audiences will be more vital than ever in keeping the shows afloat until mainstream crowds begin to discover them.