NY theaters set stage for novel ideas

Twain, Hawthorne, and Faulkner's works on display

NEW YORK — It’s a great time to be an American novelist in the New York theater. Even if you’re dead.

Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Kurt Vonnegut and William Faulkner are just some of the national literary lions whose names are decorating New York theater marquees this season.

Twain will soon make his belated Broadway bow as a playwright with the recently unearthed farce “Is He Dead?” while Off Broadway will see the opening next month of “Haw thor n ucopia,” Manhattan Play house’s irreverently titled exploration of the work of the 19th-century author.

Meanwhile, at least two companies have garnered significant attention — and ticket sales — via their approach to literary classics.

Consider Godlight Theater: The company has staged versions of Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange” and Graham Greene’s “The Third Man,” and had a hit in 2006 with its take on Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” Late next year, Bradbury will collaborate with the Gotham-based troupe to mount an entire festival of legit adaptations of his work.

On Jan. 11, Godlight will also stage the New York preem of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” based on Vonnegut’s popular novel, with a script revised from a 1996 production at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater.

Godlight a.d. Joe Tantalo says he’s partly drawn to novels because a literary connection can expand legit demographics. For instance, he recalls that several student groups who were not regular theatergoers came to “Fahrenheit,” a staple on high school reading lists.

“Getting literature onstage is a great way to get new conversations started,” he says. “The idea of sparking interest in a theatrical event in people who are familiar with a book is exciting.”

But not everyone is thrilled by unusual adaptations. Downtown company Elevator Repair Service has been controversially denied the rights to perform “Gatz,” its experimental take on “The Great Gatsby,” in New York City. That’s largely because F. Scott Fitzgerald’s estate doesn’t want the show to be confused with a more traditional version that may someday come to Broadway.

Elevator a.d. John Collins reports that there has been no progress in the Gotham stalemate, despite interest from Public Theater a.d. Oskar Eustis. Still, “Gatz,” a seven-hour production in which every word of Fitzgerald’s book is read aloud, has played from Minneapolis to Lisbon and has booked performances through 2009.

In the meantime, Gothamites can experience Elevator Repair Service’s adaptation of Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” which opens this spring at New York Theater Workshop.

The production will stage only the book’s first section, which is narrated by a mentally handicapped man and is well known for its complicated structure. Collins says he hopes Elevator’s version — which like “Gatz” will stage the literal text of the novel instead of adapting it into a script — will clarify the material without simplifying it.

He adds that it’s no accident his company has been tackling American authors, suggesting that the familiarity of American English is crucial in helping audiences embrace offbeat work.

“I think that kind of language makes a nice anchor in a production where you’re experimenting a lot,” he says. “When you’re going to clash things together, it’s important to keep it grounded somehow.”

But even when the language is clear, a nontraditional approach can still be a hurdle. Like Elevator Repair Service, Godlight’s productions are unconventional — the lead character in “Slaughterhouse” will be divided among several actors — and Tantalo says that makes some patrons wary.

He recalls not everyone loved “Fahrenheit’s” stylized, pre-curtain tableaux of firefighters standing guard on the stage.

Ultimately, it’s up to producers to communicate the style of an adaptation, especially to fans who may have expectations of what they’ll see.

“People don’t like to be surprised,” says Peter Tear, executive producer of 59E59 Theaters. The complex will host “Slaughterhouse” and is currently breaking house records with an innovative take from Chicago-based Writers’ Theater on Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” which sets the radically condensed play almost entirely in protagonist Raskolnikov’s head.

Tear continues that an aggressive marketing campaign might not seem necessary when a source novel is well known, but that’s a dangerous assumption.

“Everyone knows the title ‘Slaughterhouse-Five,’ ” he explains. “But we can never take for granted that they know the story. I think the secret is not to assume anything will sell itself.”

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