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Local kid makes good: Westport takes ‘Town’ to B’way

Noises Off - Robert Hofler

NEW YORK — When “Our Town” concluded its short 2½-week run back in June at the Westport Country Playhouse, rumors immediately circulated that the Thornton Wilder revival — featuring Paul Newman as the Stage Manager — would make it to Broadway.

The legit grapevine rendered the show’s official Broadway announcement on Sept. 25 truly anticlimactic — except in one major regard:

Where were all the names of those commercial producers who usually get an above-the-title credit on such prestige limited-engagement revivals?

The lone producer on “Our Town” is little Westport Country Playhouse, which hasn’t made a notable Broadway transfer since the Connecticut-based company brought “Butterflies Are Free” to Gotham in 1969. (“Our Town” begins previews Nov. 22, with its opening set for Dec. 4.)

“The real issue was to retain artistic control, and that seemed infeasible with commercial producers who would promote Paul Newman’s return to Broadway,” says Alison Harris, executive director at the Westport company. “From the beginning, (artistic director) Joanne Woodward felt the strength of the production came from the ensemble. Above all, this was ‘Our Town’ in our town.”

Harris proudly points out the many actors in the show who live in the Westport vicinity. In addition to Newman, there are such local thesps as Jayne Atkinson, Frank Converse, Jane Curtin and Jeffrey DeMunn, as well as the show’s director, James Naughton.

Designed to break-even

Harris squelches rumors that a recent $5 million grant from the state of Connecticut is helping to pay for the show on Broadway.

“That money is earmarked for bricks and mortar,” she says. “The money for ‘Our Town’ was raised by our board and friends of the board.”

Calling the Westport board of directors “very conservative,” Harris insists, “The show is designed to break-even.”

She puts capitalization at $1 million, about $500,000 less than the average play on Broadway, with break-even at $200,000 minus royalties. As for that low $1 million, “There isn’t much more than some ladders and chairs on stage,” Harris says of the traditional high-concept minimalism of “Our Town.” But Wilder’s play requires a huge cast (23 plus understudies); in the case of Westport, all actors are working for Equity scale ($1,302 per week) plus profits, if there are any.

All but the front-row seats at the intimate Booth Theater (785 seats) will go for $75 a pop. The seats way down front are not earmarked to be premium-priced; rather, they will be sold to students for $25 each.

According to Harris, “Our Town” breaks even at 90% capacity in seven weeks. “At 80%, we don’t recoup,” she adds. Which is why Newman agreed to a 9½-week run on Broadway, ending Jan. 26.

Call him ‘Resistible’

By contrast, the National Actors Theater won’t break-even with its all-star revival of “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” led by Al Pacino.

“You don’t look to recoup when you have this size company rehearsing for eight weeks and performing before an audience for five weeks,” says Manny Kladitis, the company’s exec director.

Billy Crudup, Steve Buscemi, Charles Durning, Chazz Palminteri, Tony Randall and 22 other actors join Pacino in the Brecht classic.

Kladitis puts the cost at more than $1 million. “If we sell every ticket,” he speculates, “the show would fall short of breaking even by $100,000 to $200,000. This is not a commercial run.”

“Arturo Ui” will perform at Pace U’s 750-seat theater under a Lort B contract, wherein thesps get a minimum of $693 per week.

The production gives its first perf Oct. 3, and a final one Nov. 3, with a benefit skedded for Oct. 27.

Gala tickets are $1,000 a head. On other dates, they go for $100. Or, a $115 package provides a $65 ticket plus the $50 NAT membership fee. Student tix are $25.

NAT originally had announced that complimentary tickets would not be made available to critics. However, since some scribes immediately purchased their own tix for perfs early in the run, the company recently offered them freebies for later in the performance sked. Refunds are available for crix stuck holding tix.

Kladitis does not rule out a much-speculated Broadway transfer, but calls it “highly unlikely” due to the actors’ availability, among other issues.

If “Arturo” eventually transfers, it will most likely be after Pacino brings his “Oedipus Rex” to the stage. With Estelle Parsons at the helm, the Greek classic has been in “rehearsals” for well over two years at the Actors Studio.