Plays challenge wisdom on how soon is too soon

Producers of Broadway revivals always have to battle the seen-it-before malaise that can infect audience perception of a new staging of a familiar property. But this fall, the deja vu is particularly intense.

With the recent addition of the Scarlett Johansson-toplined “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” to the Main Stem sked, no fewer than four of this autumn’s play revivals — “Cat,” “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Cyrano de Bergerac” — have appeared on Broadway in the past seven years. Heck, “Cat” itself has been seen twice before in the past decade.

With conventional wisdom holding that a producer wants at least 10 years, preferably more, between revivals, these four shows raise the question: How soon is too soon? There’s no easy answer, judging from a survey of legiters about timing and title fatigue.

Both “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Virginia Woolf” were last on the Rialto in 2005, with memorable casts and plenty of critical praise. “Glengarry,” David Mamet’s tale of intrigue in a real estate office, starred Liev Schreiber and Alan Alda and earned Tonys for revival and Schreiber; Edward Albee’s spousal-warfare drama “Virginia Woolf” was toplined by Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin, who nabbed a Tony for his perf.

Edmond De Rostand’s 1897 romance “Cyrano,” meanwhile, played the Main Stem in a 2007 staging that starred Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner, while Tennessee Williams’ Southern drama “Cat” has been seen in 2003 (starring Ashley Judd and Ned Beatty) and in 2008 (with Anika Noni Rose and James Earl Jones).

At the very least, the fall slate suggests the bankable American canon is worryingly small, an assertion with which a lot of legiters would disagree. But regardless, most concede that a single compelling element — or better yet, several elements — can propel a show to the boards regardless of prior incarnations.

“When there’s something new to bring to it via the director or a particular actor, I don’t hesitate,” says “Cat” producer Stuart Thompson. The clear “It” factor in his production is Johansson, who earned a Tony and helped propel strong sales for the Thompson-backed 2010 outing of “A View From the Bridge.” The play is also a U.S. nonmusical debut of sorts for director Rob Ashford, who’s best known Stateside for staging tuners including “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” but has in the U.K. acquired a rep as a heavyweight helmer of star-driven plays including last year’s much-lauded incarnation of “Anna Christie” starring Jude Law.

In the case of “Glengarry,” the driving element is Al Pacino, whose B.O.-busting run in 2010′s “The Merchant of Venice” cemented the thesp’s status as a box office powerhouse. “Virginia Woolf” — produced by Jeffrey Richards, as is “Glengarry” — seems to have less urgency to it, with a cast of respectable but not quite famous stars (Amy Morton, Tracy Letts) in a transfer of a well-received Chicago production, with the Broadway opening timed to the 50th anniversary of the play’s 1962 preem.

Richards, however, is confident of the appeal of both titles. “These are American classics that can come back frequently,” he says. “There’s an audience for these shows if they’re done well and smartly.”

The situation is admittedly different for “Cyrano,” which, as part of the season at Gotham nonprofit Roundabout Theater Company, doesn’t entail the same kind of commercial risks as the other three productions. “Cyrano” joined the Roundabout sked when a.d. Todd Haimes decided he wanted to work with Brit actor Douglas Hodge (“La Cage aux Folles”), and Hodge suggested “Cyrano.”

Haimes echoes a sentiment voiced by more than one producer when he notes that “Cyrano,” as well as plays by Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill, are the equivalent of Shakespearean works that can hold up under multiple stagings. “With classics like these, there’s no reason you shouldn’t see one every five years,” he says.

Case in point: last summer’s competing, limited runs of “Uncle Vanya,” one toplined by Cate Blanchett, and another starring Michael Shannon in an idiosyncratically staged downtown production. Both were sold-out hits.

While the quick Broadway turnaround of some play titles provokes eyerolls from many in the industry, it’s not entirely clear the same fatigue will be felt by the playgoing audience at large — a crowd that likely doesn’t see every Broadway show the way insiders do. Although the largely local audience for Broadway plays is thought to be a small pool, some marketing data suggests it adds up to about a million people — way too many to pack into a single 14-week run of perfs in a 1,200-seat theater.

Besides, there are different yardsticks for success. When the 2010 revival of “La Cage aux Folles” was announced, many in the industry questioned the wisdom of bringing in a musical that closed its most recent Broadway revival just five years earlier. The London import didn’t end up recouping, but its critical raves and three Tonys — including one for Hodge, in his Broadway debut — marked it as a creative success, if not a financial one.

If there is a single consistent answer to the question of how soon is too soon, it’s this: It depends. And this fall will offer four more case studies for legiters to analyze.

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