NFP world premieres on the wane

Many plays avoid critical Gotham legit community

NEW YORK – “Can you dim the lights a little bit?”

That rhetorical question, coming from George C. Wolfe, artistic director of the Public Theater, emphasizes the dark side of not-for-profit theaters’ current moment in the media spotlight. Although more and more new American plays are being produced in the New York orbit of NFPs, there is a noticeable downward spiral in the number of world premieres.

At the Public, New York premieres of American plays (Tina Landau’s “Space,” Nilo Cruz’s “Two Sisters and a Piano” and Anna Deavere Smith’s “House Arrest”) in the 1999-2000 season outnumber the world premieres (Suzan-Lori Parks’ “In the Blood”) three to one.

Michael John LaChiusa musical “The Wild Party” — with book by Wolfe — is a world premiere; the show will open on Broadway in April. Regarding plays, however, many — if not most — playwrights now prefer not to open in New York City.

“They’re cautious about New York because of the critical community,” Wolfe says. He mentions last season’s play “Stop Kiss,” by Diana Son. “It got great reviews and is now having an extra life in the regional theaters.” In the same breath, Wolfe mentions another play produced at the Public in the 1998-99 season that got mixed reviews, and as a result “is having a very modest life.”

Lynne Meadow, artistic director at Manhattan Theater Club, also notices the growing trend toward fidgety playwrights: “The whole out-of-town tryout notion that used to exist with Broadway now certainly exists with Off Broadway.” That said, MTC has three, and possibly four, world premieres of American plays on its new season schedule, including David Auburn’s “Proof,” David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Fuddy Meers” and Charles Busch’s “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.”

The Vineyard Theatre’s new season offers nothing but world premieres. However, artistic director Douglas Aibel is quick to point out that all five plays have undergone — or are about to undergo — long incubation periods before reaching the Gotham audiences. “If you’re making a step to present a world premiere,” Aibel says, “it’s important to give the play its proper development prior to that premiere.”

The Vineyard has given its initial offering, Becky Mode’s comedy “Fully Committed,” and two upcoming plays (“True History and Real Adventures” by Sybille Pearson and “The Altruists” by Nicky Silver) several readings; “True History” also was performed in workshop at Sundance two years ago.

Laurence Klavan’s “Creation of the Humanoids” received a Vineyard lab production last season and will play special latenight dates in April. “Every season we commit one production to the lab,” Aibel explains. “It runs for a couple of weeks, with no press and it’s open just to our subscribers.” The Vineyard’s lab production in 2000 is Craig Lucas’ new drama “Stranger,” featuring Mary-Louise Parker.

“I don’t think there are too many new plays that have suffered from having a production prior to New York,” says Todd Haimes of the Roundabout Theatre.

Some artistic directors, however, express a slightly more dramatic take on the situation, especially when it’s their own play that’s hitting the Gotham boards. “You have to be protective of your play,” says Douglas Carter Beane (“As Bees in Honey Drown”), whose new play, “The Country Club,” opened at the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut before getting its New York debut this season at the Drama Dept., where Beane is artistic director. “When your play goes into New York, that is the alpha and the omega for the play. It will dictate any kind of life your play will have for the next five to 10 years.”