Playwrights’ survival strategies

The hard part comes after the script's written

It’s the year that the Tonys went totally American in its choice of best plays and one in which two famous scribes, David Mamet with “Race” and Martin McDonagh with “A Behanding in Spokane,” did not make the cut. Since “Race” and “Behanding” were those rarest of legit animals — Broadway world preems — it can be assumed that they had a slightly less arduous trip to Broadway than the four Tony nominees: John Logan’s “Red,” Donald Margulies’ “Time Stands Still,” Geoffrey Naufft’s “Next Fall” and Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room.”

“There’s always a slow road into New York,” says Ruhl. “All my plays have their difficulties finding their right home. Not that long ago, I remember sobbing over the kitchen table, complaining to my husband, who was then my boyfriend, whether any of my plays would ever get that first big production.”

“In the Next Room” took a less circuitous route to Gotham than some of the playwright’s other works. First produced at Berkeley Rep, Ruhl’s play about 19th-century vibrators found a more conservative audience when it came to Broadway under the auspices of Lincoln Center Theater. “Actually, people have been more shocked by the intimacy in the play, when at the end the man is exposed both literally and figuratively to his wife, than the vibrators,” Ruhl points out. “In this day and age, what’s radical is human intimacy.”

Ruhl’s new one, “Passion Play,” made its Gotham debut this month in the Lafayette Church in Brooklyn. The distance from Broadway has less to do with miles than money. “It’s $5 for seats in the balcony,” says the scribe.

Regarding his first Broadway effort, “Next Fall,” Nauffts admits, “I hawked this play all over the place. It was tough to get it done.”

It helped that Nauffts had just become artistic director at Naked Angels, where the play first opened, last summer. Its gay subject matter, about a relationship between an atheist and a Christian fundamentalist, might have been a stumbling block to getting it produced. “I’m sure it was a consideration for certain regional theaters,” Nauffts offers. Then again, it probably helped him land the show’s famous lead producer. Nauffts is currently collaborating with Elton John on the movie musical “Showstopper” for Ben Stiller’s production company.

After writing several plays, Logan says it feels like “I’ve spent my whole life” getting to Broadway. “It wasn’t easy.”

Logan’s “Red,” about painter Mark Rothko, preemed at the Donmar Warehouse. Logan had been working on Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd” in London when he gave his “Red” script to director Michael Grandage. Despite a quick OK from Grandage and the Donmar, Logan insists, “There’s no such thing as an easy play. There are easy movies. There’s a cushion around a movie: the powerful director, the well-financed studio, the movie star. With a play it’s just a bunch of guys in the trenches trying to survive.”

Of this Tony bunch, Margulies is the only Broadway vet, having now seen five of his works open there. Experience breeds success. His “Time Stands Still” was a Geffen Playhouse commission. “So it was pretty much guaranteed a life, and then my relationship with MTC goes back 25 years. It seemed like a natural progression,” he says of the road to Broadway.

Not that the scribe took a vacation between the two engagements. “The New York version of the play is at least 15 minutes shorter,” he says. And he had some help editing. In Broadway rehearsals, Laura Linney made a suggestion regarding one line. Margulies recalls, “Laura asked if she could change ‘be quiet’ to ‘inside voice,’ admonishing her husband for his (speaking) volume.” The scribe admits, “And it gets a wonderful laugh.”

One doubts that’s the way Mamet works.

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