Busch League

Rhoda R. Herrick is an angel with a big heart, deep pockets and, these days, an angry soul. In December, her Herrick Theater Foundation bankrolled the move of Charles Busch’s “You Should Be So Lucky” from Off Off Broadway’s Primary Stages to the Westside Theater, a 299-seat commercial Off Broadway house, to the tune of $400,000. The deal with the Westside included a stop clause: After the first six weeks, the show could be evicted if the box office fell below one-third of potential, about $28,000, two weeks in a row. It did. Peter Asking, who runs the theater, kicked the show out – it was to play its last performances March 5 – to make room for David Mamet’s “The Cryptogram.”

Herrick, who had offered to guarantee the $6,000-per-week rent and a percentage of the grosses through Labor Day, responded with a full page ad in the New York Times attacking Asking for acting, well, like a character in a Mamet play. With established playwrights like Mamet, Edward Albee and Neil Simon taking over Off Broadway, Herrick and Busch argued, Broadway-style greed and heartlessness were squeezing out other artists. Herrick is out not only the $400,000, but the $8,000 cost of the Times ad (which was also placed in Variety and the New York Observer) and considerably more for a TV spot she’d produced for the show that now, of course, will never run.

Asking says he invoked the stop clause “very, very reluctantly,” but that “You Should Be So Lucky” lost money in 10 of the 12 weeks it ran, and for seven of those weeks it was below the $28,000 mark. Its advance, never higher than $29,000, was falling, despite an unusually warm season; he points out that during last year’s brutal winter, “Family Secrets” in the same space never fell below its stop-clause figure.

“It became abundantly clear to us that the show had time to find an audience and it hasn’t,” says Asking, adding that the average ticket price paid for “Lucky” was less than half the $37.50 top. “Despite the promise of underwriting,” he says, “we were going to be dark in the spring. We had a chance to rent the theater for a second season.”

Maria Di Diaz, the show’s general manager, doesn’t dispute those numbers, but says shows always have a tough time in January and February, and that word of mouth takes longer to build Off Broadway, with its smaller audiences, than on.

“We had a producer who was 100% behind this show,” she says, adding that declining Herrick’s extraordinary guarantee is an indication of Askin’s bad faith. So is the $28,000 figure, which she says is extremely high for a stop clause; at the John Houseman Theater, which has the same gross potential, the figure is $20,000. She also notes that the abbreviated run could have a deleterious impact on the play’s stock and amateur prospects.

The incident demonstrates just how tense things have grown Off Broadway, whose commercially viable theaters are suddenly flush with suitors. But Askin is no Abraham Erlanger, and “The Cryptogram” is no sure thing; its runs in London and Cambridge, Mass., earned a wide mix of reviews. The Westside could be dark in the spring even with the second booking; every show is a crap shoot.

“It’s not just about the rent,” Askin says, “or I’d rent to the Church of Scientology.”

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