Play’s the thing

Strong drama entries prove it's not all about splashy tuners

Time was when the Tony nominations hit the news, a familiar complaint was heard: The best new American plays were nowhere to be found as Broadway was exclusively a showplace for lavish musicals or imported Brit hits.

But this year the mood is more upbeat — why, even the Pulitzer Prize, which has almost exclusively honored Off Broadway works of late, went to a play running on Broadway, David Auburn’s “Proof.”

The season indeed has been a strong one for plays on Broadway, in terms of critical reception and, perhaps most significantly for the future of the biz, commercially.

“Proof,” a transfer from the Manhattan Theater Club, recouped its investment in a mere nine weeks; “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” likewise an MTC transfer, recouped in 12. Both plays are in contention for the top Tony award, along with August Wilson’s “King Hedley II” and Tom Stoppard’s “The Invention of Love,” two more critically acclaimed productions. (Left out of contention was Neil Simon’s “The Dinner Party,” also a commercial hit that made it into the black in good time.)

A handful of commercial winners might seem a small victory, but on Broadway, where flops are far more numerous than hits, they make a big splash.

Small wonder that Barry Grove, exec producer at the MTC, is sounding upbeat.

“I think the fact the financial and critical success of these two plays (‘Proof’ and ‘Allergist’s Wife’) illustrates that there’s a real thirst for this material and also that the economics for producing plays on Broadway can work,” he says.

Nevertheless, Grove points out that the four nominees for best new play all originated elsewhere — at nonprofit theaters in Manhattan or elsewhere.

“It’s always been true that work was tested outside Broadway. It used to be commercial tryouts in New Haven, (Conn.), or Philadelphia. Now plays are nurtured in the nonprofit community,” he says. “There has finally developed a healthy symbiosis between the worlds; work is developed in an affordable fashion, and eventually finds its way to a larger audience on Broadway.”

Andre Bishop, artistic director of the Lincoln Center Theater, which produced “The Invention of Love” on Broadway this season, believes that the current season will give a further boost to a general positive change in the climate.

“I think that as a result of this season, and particularly the success of the two Manhattan Theater Club plays, it will become easier to move plays from the not-for-profit arena to commercial Broadway runs,” says Bishop, adding that the strong season for straight plays already may have helped bring about Lincoln Center Theater’s planned fall transfer of Jon Robin Baitz’s “Ten Unknowns” to Broadway.

As artistic director of Playwrights Horizons for many years, Bishop worked for exclusively Off Broadway, but he doesn’t share the conviction that those productions should be made eligible for Tony consideration.

“The Tony Award is a Broadway award; I have no problem at all with that,” he says. “What continues to disturb me is the lack of understanding among the general audience (that) there is this whole other theater movement (the not-for-profits and regionals) in which dozens of very fine plays are produced.

“There’s a commercial producing couple who continually refer to the work of nonprofit as ‘community theater,’ as if Broadway was the only professional theater.”

Lynne Meadow, the artistic director of MTC, admits that she has often wished that the Tonys would open themselves to a broader spectrum of work, but while she appreciates the extra limelight the awards bring, she believes that it’s just one in a complex web of elements producers can use to draw attention to material.

“Everybody is looking for ways to bring their work to the attention of larger audiences, to encourage people to come to the theater,” she says. “A Tony or another award is just one way to get people to sign on when they don’t know the playwright’s name.”

“The issue about the Tonys being for Broadway only has been around for 35 years, but I haven’t heard much about it this season,” says Jed Bernstein, prexy of the League of American Theaters and Producers, which presents the Tonys along with the American Theater Wing. “With ‘Hedley,’ ‘Invention of Love,’ ‘Proof,’ ‘Allergist’s Wife,’ not to mention classic plays such as ‘Betrayal,’ it would be hard to argue that there was a lack of sufficient quality on Broadway.”

Bernstein cites various factors that make the idea of opening up the Tonys to non-Broadway shows a logistical nightmare.

“How do you compare apples and oranges, shows of such vastly different scales and technical finish?” he wonders. “And where do you draw the line? Is everything within the five boroughs eligible? Everything within a 20-mile radius? That’s not an inconsequential problem.”

He concludes, “The Tonys don’t profess to be the last word on honoring drama in the U.S. We simply celebrate the best of what’s happened on the biggest stages of one of the world’s theatrical epicenters. That’s not such a bad thing.”

For his part, Meadow’s MTC partner Grove thinks that there are plenty of laurels to go around.

“We looked at (including Off Broadway in the Tonys) a while ago, but I think there’s good reason to have the Tonys for Broadway and the Lucille Lortel awards for Off Broadway. Then there’s the Drama Desk, which includes everybody together. There’s plenty of ways to celebrate everybody.”