Can nonmusicals boost Broadway?

Flood of new shows tests uncertain market

After a fall season in which Broadway watchers wondered about the coming economic Armageddon, the spring has turned out to be a time of bounty — for straight plays, anyway.

That’s because nonmusical offerings, with capitalization costs far less than those of a splashy tuner, are proving easier for producers to fund in the current fiscal climate.

Five plays will bow on the Rialto in the next couple of weeks alone. That makes it a good time to be one of the Main Stem’s devout playgoers, but a rough time to be one of those plays, now faced with the challenge of standing out in an unusually crowded market.

Starry ‘King’

Opening March 26, Ionesco’s 1962 outing “Exit the King” is a revival — but it might as well be a new play, given how little American auds know of the absurdist comedy about a dying monarch.

Even Geoffrey Rush, who toplines the production with Susan Sarandon and co-penned the translation with helmer Neil Armfield, at one point didn’t know much about Ionesco’s plays. “Like most people, my image of them was that it was weird French shit,” he says.

The title alone may not generate much recognition, but producers hope an ensemble headed by two Oscar winners (and including Lauren Ambrose and Andrea Martin) will help direct attention to “Exit.”

“With the cast, we tried to make it an event without making it seem too pretentious,” says Stuart Thompson, the producer and general manager who is bringing the $2.5 million production to the Rialto for a limited run with Brit producers Robert Fox and Howard Panter, among others.

A native Australian, Thompson first caught “Exit” in 2007 when it played in Sydney, where Rush, also an Aussie, starred with an Australian cast.

The thesp has been offered stage runs in both Gotham and London for years now. “I’m always offering him parts and he’s always turning me down,” Fox says.

For Rush, however, it was important to bow on Broadway in a production that originated in Oz. Company B, the Sydney-based troupe of which Armfield is a.d., originally presented “Exit” in a co-production with Malthouse Melbourne. (With a couple of Brit producers onboard, a West End run for the play is a possibility, although dependent on actor availability and the reception in Gotham.)

On Broadway, those involved in “Exit” aim to convince potential auds that the surreal comedy is not the gloomy existentialist downer many folks might associate with Ionesco.

The youngest theatergoers might be the ones with the fewest preconceptions, Rush theorizes. “Anyone under 25 has no problem with Ionesco,” he says. “They all grew up with ‘Ren and Stimpy’ and ‘SpongeBob SquarePants.’ ”

‘Vow’s’ test

Unlike “Exit the King” — or two other new play productions, “Impressionism” with Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen and “God of Carnage” starring Jeff Daniels, Marcia Gay Harden, James Gandolfini and Hope Davis — the Broadway transfer of “Irena’s Vow” does not have movie-star names attached to grab attention.

Playwright Dan Gordon understands that’s a drawback. The screenwriter (“The Hurricane,” “Passenger 57”) has made a habit of translating well-known pics to the stage, having penned play adaptations of “Rain Man” and “Terms of Endearment” that have done strong biz in the U.K.

“The producer side of my brain understands it’s useful to have a title with brand recognition,” he says.

“Irena’s Vow,” he acknowledges, doesn’t have that. Instead it has the true story of a Polish Catholic (played by Tovah Feldshuh) who saved the lives of a dozen Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.

The story of Irena Gut Opdyke first grabbed Gordon about 15 years ago when he heard her tell it on the radio. He later became a friend of Opdyke, and after considering movie-of-the-week and feature versions of her story (hindered by rights issues), he decided to write a play.

The show became a word-of-mouth success last year in an Off Broadway staging from the Directors Company and helmer Michael Parva. Stan Raiff, who enhanced that initial incarnation, is joined by Daryl Roth, Debra Black and James L. Nederlander, among others, for the approximately $2.5 million Broadway transfer, opening March 29.

The show’s marketing strategy reaches out to Catholic and Jewish orgs whose missions share the same make-a-difference spirit as Opdyke’s good deeds.

But creatives and producers still hope the strong word of mouth generated the first time around will be replicated for the Rialto version.

“The show was sold out Off Broadway, and we barely took out an ad,” Gordon says. “I have no idea how that happened.”

‘Pretty’ partners

For another transfer from Off Broadway, Neil LaBute’s “Reasons to Be Pretty,” commercial producers Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel joined forces with MCC Theater in part because circumstances reminded the duo of the Richards and Frankel-produced Tony winner “August: Osage County.”

Like “August” scribe Tracy Letts, LaBute was a writer with a high profile Off Broadway who had never played the Main Stem. And Off Broadway’s MCC would be a resident theater partner, as was “August” originator Steppenwolf Theater.

But “Reasons,” about a man whose relationship meltdown forces him to reevaluate his attitudes toward women. announced its Rialto intentions long before the season sked filled up. “Suddenly we find ourselves opening in the busiest spring of all, which is very difficult for a new American play without big-name stars,” Richards says.

One indicator of how hard it is: “Reasons” grossed less than $40,000 for its first three preview perfs. (In the run-up to the April 2 opening, creatives are continuing to tinker with the script, experimenting with eliminating the show’s act break and reducing some direct-address monologues.)

The production already has aimed to attract attention with an in-your-face ad campaign featuring anonymous body parts. The marketing strategy also will include partnerships with arts org GenArt, the website Yelp and a cross-promotional deal with DKNY.

“Their customer is our customer,” MCC a.d. Bernard Telsey says. “We’re specifically targeting the younger, cooler, groovier crowd who go see all Neil’s movies.”

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