Bush in crosshairs

Gotham theater targets the prez

NEW YORK — They may not do much for his administration, but President Bush’s declining approval ratings are a tonic to New York theater, with shows that bash the Republican chieftains or criticize the war in Iraq starting to constitute a thriving niche genre.

For “Stuff Happens,” David Hare’s play about the run-up to the war in Iraq, the key to selling tickets has been mixing the public’s appetite for current events with more traditional marketing lures. The serious-minded political drama sold out its initial run even before opening April 13 and was granted a four-week extension through May 28.

It was a no-brainer that liberals would snap up the majority of tickets to the Hare play, driven by the desire to share a tough look at British and American political machinations on the road to Iraq.

But the play also is selling on the basis of its prestige factor, arriving after celebrated runs at London’s National Theater and Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum. That buzzworthy status is enticing crowds from both sides of the political aisle, even piquing the curiosity of Bush supporters.

While director Daniel Sullivan has favored experienced character actors over marquee names in his “Stuff Happens” cast, some theaters are happy to mix their politics with star power.

Alan Buchman, artistic director of the Culture Project (which opened Peter Morris’ Abu Ghraib-themed “Guardians” on April 11) says a message play can have more impact if it reaches beyond its expected demographic, and a familiar name in the credits often broadens appeal.

“With about 60% of the audience, you’re preaching to the choir,” he admits. “For the rest, it’s strategic in terms of where we market and to whom.”

For “Guardians,” the Culture Project’s strategy involves fans of lesbian melodrama, since cast member Katherine Moennig also stars on Showtime’s Sapphosoap “The L Word.”

Buchman says Moennig has drawn a gay crowd that might not otherwise have found the play. He insists she was cast for her talent, but he’s happy that those who come because of her “L Word” character will leave having heard a pointed social argument. (He also notes this strategy worked with the Culture Project’s 2002 hit “The Exonerated,” a drama about wrongfully accused prisoners that ran for 18 months with a revolving cast of A-listers.)

But international acclaim and celebrity thesps are the concerns of larger productions. Some Bush-bashing shows are staying alive by playing tiny houses, giddily providing their loyal, biased fans with exactly what they want to hear.

Two satirical musical revues have been skewering Dubya for months, with no end in sight. Take “Bush Wars”: Nancy Holson’s savage song cycle opened at the 53-seat Collective: Unconscious in January and then moved to the 95-seat Rattlestick, where it recently extended to April 23.

And then there’s “Bush Is Bad,” the biggest hit on the anti-Republican revue circuit. Since Sept. 29, the show has been selling out two nights a week at the Triad, a 100-seat cabaret on the Upper West Side. Originally skedded for eight perfs and now in an open-ended run, the tuner — which features at least one new, up-to-the-minute parody every week — is something of a sensation. Writer-producer Joshua Rosenblum reports talks are under way to mount additional companies in L.A., Edinburgh and, of all places, Portugal.

Granted, since it only plays Thursdays and Fridays — meaning it needs to sell 200 tickets a week — “Bush Is Bad” can afford to court a more purely partisan crowd than “Stuff Happens.” But Rosenblum claims it’s not only Democrats who are buying the cast album (released in December) and helping recoup the $31,000 investment.

“I’ve had some converts actually … and a few of the Republicans are bringing their friends,” he says.

Why do repeat attendees keep coming back for ditties like “How Can 59 Million People Be So Dumb?” and “New Hope for the Fabulously Wealthy”? Rosenblum muses, “Because to get a group of people in a room and make them realize they’re not alone (in their political beliefs) is palliative.”

There would seem to be plenty of people who want to hear songs that support their views. Add them to all the other markets for anti-Republican theater, and the genre could keep flourishing until the 2008 elections.

Then there’ll be a brand-new fixture in the White House to inspire theatrical rage.

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