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Serious drama a hard sell on Broadway

Cast pays cost for loss of Wilson's 'Gem'

NEW YORK — Every legit season delivers at least one heartbreaker closing. The premature shuttering usually befalls the serious drama of historical significance, which, despite good reviews, does not find an audience large enough or fast enough to sustain business.

Actors take the biggest hit, since they often have the most invested, and not just emotionally. Working at or near minimum, they have passed up more lucrative work to be part of an important theatrical event.

For the playwright and producers, who retain a percentage, the play closes in Gotham but has a life elsewhere with other actors. For the original Broadway cast, however, it is over. Finished. Done. On to pilot season.

In the 1999-2000 season, Patrick Stewart used the curtain call at “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan” to rail at the producer’s lack of support for what will remain Arthur Miller’s final original drama on Broadway.

Last season, the cast of Nilo Cruz’s “Anna in the Tropics” openly complained about the lack of marketing to the Latino community.

This season, the victim is August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” his ninth of a 10-play cycle about the African-American experience.

The actors were not surprised at the two weeks’ notice to close “Gem” on Feb. 6. ” ‘Shocked’ is a better word,” says Anthony Chisholm, who had been with the production in L.A., Chi and Boston. “Then we come into New York City and we do less than three months.”

“I’ve closed over 100 shows,” says Ruben Santiago-Hudson, “but I’ve never felt so upset at a closing.”

For LisaGay Hamilton, “Gem” stands out even in the Wilson canon. “No other play on Broadway has dealt with the Middle Passage,” she says. “I never thought we would survive, but certainly (thought) we’d make it through Black History Month. That’s a no-brainer.” Six days into February, “Gem” put in its last and 72nd perf, the fewest for any new Wilson play on Broadway.

The February timing hurt the most.

“This month was created for us to shine,” says Santiago-Hudson.

“With the passing of Ossie Davis, it became even more profound,” says Hamilton.

All three actors expressed gratitude to Carole Shorenstein Hays for playing angel with her $1 million to open the $2.2 million production. “But there was no money for marketing,” Chisholm says.

Wilson could not be reached for comment, but his lawyer John Breglio said, “(The producers) tried everything they could. The wraps were going down every day. They had lost more than the capitalization.”

Unfortunately, “Gem’s” fate is typical of serious dramas, which need all guns blasting from the get-go to survive in the commercial market.

“The Laramie Project” also got positive reviews. “But they weren’t money reviews,” said one of its producers, and after a short run, the drama about gay-bashing closed Off Broadway.

Going beyond the eat-your-vegetables comment that this play is good for you, a money review needs to physically inspire a critic, usually from the New York Times. Hunger pangs are good (“Democracy”); tears are even better (“Thom Pain”).

The reviews sealed the fate of “Gem” in another, less obvious way.

While the show’s ads and publicity wisely eschewed the comparison, most critics mentioned “Gem’s” No. 9 spot in the Wilson cycle. “Theatergoers who had seen some of the others felt they didn’t need to see another,” says one marketing person.

The emotional resonance of Black History Month runs deep in the African-American community. Whether it translates into box office is open to question. The revival of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” began previews last year in early February and saw its box office collapse with bad reviews. “Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam” did not get a bump in February 2003.

Targeting a production to a special time period or confab often backfires, due to all the other competition. Last June, the acclaimed revival of the AIDS drama “The Normal Heart” saw biz collapse during gay pride week.

Most damaging to the long-term prospects of “Gem” was its gross for the week of Jan. 10-16, which included the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. Counter to other plays on Broadway, receipts that week fell 8.4% from the previous session.

“Gem” did go on to enjoy a big 32.1% spike in its final week, pointing to an untapped audience.

“A limited run for ‘Gem’ would have created a sense of urgency,” says Santiago-Hudson, who feels the show could have grown legs from there and extended.

“We would have sold out, because we had a small window,” says Hamilton.

It worked for Wilson’s “Jitney,” which transferred from Second Stage to the Union Square Theater. It might be the way to go for the playwright’s next one, “Radio Golf.”

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