Spring dramas far outnumber musicals

Theater pundits can be relied upon never to underplay a dramatic moment. Each season, they punctually sound cultural alarm bells by announcing the death of the straight play on Broadway. But of the 18 productions still to come in the 2006-07 season, a staggering 12 of them are plays.

Significantly, the calendar year kicked off with a drama, “Translations,” setting the tone for a spring season uncommonly high on serious works. The production opened Jan. 25 at the Biltmore, repping a return engagement for Manhattan Theater Club, which staged the U.S. premiere of Brian Friel’s 1981 play about cultural conflict 26 years ago Off Broadway.

Lending further heft to the season lineup are the New York returns of some highly regarded thesps, among them Christopher Plummer, Brian Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave, Angela Lansbury, Marian Seldes, Liev Schreiber, Frank Langella, Kevin Spacey and John Mahoney.

The balance on Broadway has long tipped toward musicals — at present, there are 23 tuners on the boards and only five plays. With five new plays and seven play revivals due in, the spring season’s reversal of that trend can be traced to multiple factors.

Despite the recent proliferation of small-scale art musicals, tuners almost invariably are more expensive to produce than plays and require a considerably longer run to become profitable. High-profile musical failures like the recent “High Fidelity” and “The Times They Are a-Changin'” inevitably reverberate with more of a commercial thud than plays.

While the past two seasons have not been without their share of non-musical misfires, successes have been sufficiently prolific to steer producers toward dramatic fodder. The solid results of “Doubt,” “The Pillowman,” “Rabbit Hole,” “Shining City” and “The History Boys” showed Broadway still responds to strong new works. Revivals of “Twelve Angry Men,” “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Awake and Sing!” and “Faith Healer” demonstrated that dynamic staging can breathe new life into vintage drama. And solo vehicles like “Bridge & Tunnel,” “Primo” and Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays” proved the right one-person show can fill a Broadway house.

Major marquee names also have been instrumental in selling recent-season plays, with Denzel Washington in “Julius Caesar,” Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in “The Odd Couple” and Julia Roberts in “Three Days of Rain” all showing box office clout can outweigh tepid reviews.

Plays generally have a smaller audience than musicals — less tourist traffic and fewer non-English speakers specifically — so many producers favor limited engagements rather than open-ended commercial runs. However, the logistics of recouping in a short time remain challenging, which makes extensions desirable.

What’s most interesting about the spring lineup is that it defies the usual cultural trend in bleak times — the current panorama of war, a struggling economy, political disillusionment and environmental crisis would appear to qualify as such — when popular entertainment often veers toward escapist fluff. The preponderance of meaty drama on the spring menu leans distinctly in the opposite direction.

Among new plays, anticipation runs high for the concluding part of Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” trilogy, “Salvage,” which opens Feb. 15 at the Vivian Beaumont. Jack O’Brien’s staging for Lincoln Center Theater of the ensemble epic about the stormy lives of 19th-century Russian intellectuals then runs in rep with the first two parts through May 13.

Returning to Broadway after her Tony-winning turn in “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Redgrave is expected to be a major draw in Joan Didion’s stage adaptation of her National Book Award-winning 2005 memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking,” written after the death of the author’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, and during the illness of daughter Quintana. David Hare, whose latest play, “The Vertical Hour,” bowed on Broadway in the fall, directs the solo piece, opening March 29 at the Booth.

Set to fill the sudden vacancy (following the abrupt exit of “High Fidelity” in December) with a May 2 opening at the Imperial is “Coram Boy,” adapted by Helen Edmundson from the Dickensian novel by Jamila Gavin. A hit at the National Theater in London, Melly Still’s production incorporates music from Handel’s “Messiah” in a harrowing but redemptive story that involves infanticide and child slavery.

Opening April 22 at the Jacobs is “Frost/Nixon,” which chronicles the disgraced former U.S. president’s post-resignation appearance in a landmark TV interview with talkshow host David Frost. Those real-life figures are played, respectively, by Langella and Michael Sheen in the drama by fast-rising playwright/screenwriter Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “The Last King of Scotland”).

A hit at London’s Donmar Warehouse and subsequently in the West End, the transfer marks the Broadway debut of one of Britain’s busiest and most consistently successful stage directors, Michael Grandage.

Still awaiting confirmation is “Radio Golf,” the final play in August Wilson’s 10-part cycle about the black experience in 20th-century America, set in 1997 and dealing with the spiritual price of success. Currently playing Chicago’s Goodman Theater, Kenny Leon’s production is tipped to go into the Cort.

A lighter note among the spring plays is expected from Terrence McNally’s “Deuce,” which pairs dueling divas Lansbury and Seldes as retired tennis pros. Opening May 6 at the Music Box, Michael Blakemore’s production reps Lansbury’s first role on Broadway, excluding special events, since the 1983 “Mame” revival.

Dramatic friction also dominates the play revival roster.

Plummer and Dennehy will face off in Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s 1955 courtroom drama “Inherit the Wind,” which taps into the volatile creationism vs. evolution debate with its account of a science teacher on trial in Tennessee for teaching Darwin’s theories. Doug Hughes directs the play, with a 34-member ensemble, opening April 12 at the Lyceum.

Spacey stars with Eve Best and Colm Meaney in Eugene O’Neill’s bruising love story, “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” opening April 8 at the Brooks Atkinson. Originally seen at the Old Vic last fall, Howard Davies’ production helped redeem Spacey’s tenure as artistic director of the London theater after a run of disappointments. The actor and director last teamed on O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” on Broadway in 1999.

The Longacre will house a revival of a more recent vintage, with Eric Bogosian’s 1987 play about a latenight shock jock, “Talk Radio.” Schreiber, who scored a Tony for his last turn in a blistering 1980s drama, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” will man the microphone as the abusive Cleveland radio host in Robert Falls’ production, bowing March 11.

Opening Feb. 22 at the Belasco is R.C. Sherriff’s 1929 “Journey’s End,” starring Boyd Gaines, Jefferson Mayes and Hugh Dancy as WWI soldiers in the trenches of Saint-Quentin, France. David Grindley, who directed the drama’s successful 2004 West End revival, will stage the production.

Filling out the revival slate is Roundabout’s remount of Craig Lucas’ body-swapping fantasy romance “Prelude to a Kiss,” opening March 8 at the American Airlines Theater. Anne Parisse and Alan Tudyk play the young lovers alongside Mahoney. Daniel Sullivan directs.

The major nonprofits — Lincoln Center, MTC and Roundabout — regularly stage dramas each year, but only a small handful of commercial producers remain committed to plays. That narrow field is evidenced this year by Scott Rudin’s name as a principal presenter on three plays (“The Year of Magical Thinking,” “The Vertical Hour” and “Deuce”) and Boyett Ostar on another three (“Inherit the Wind,” “Journey’s End” and “Coram Boy”).

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