Off B’way B.O. a big bust

Commercial hits increasingly rare as nonprofit winners head to Broadway

NEW YORK — The glut of Broadway openings — and the sluggish grosses — in recent days have overshadowed some other bad news, namely that business Off Broadway is arguably in worse shape than on the Great White Way.

After an eight-month run, the producers of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” announced that the three-person comedy will close May 25. Jason Robert Brown’s two-hander musical “The Last Five Years” calls it quits May 6. And Pamela Gien’s long-runner “The Syringa Tree” and the Alan King starrer “Mr. Goldwyn” will put in their last performances sometime in June.

None of these four shows will make into the black, including “The Syringa Tree,” which is a carryover from the previous season. In fact, of the shows that opened this season in Off Broadway’s larger premium commercial theaters (229 to 499 seats), only the novelty act “Puppetry of the Penis” looks to turn a profit, and it recently transferred from the 299-seat John Houseman Theater to the complex’s 109-seat downstairs venue, the Studio Theater.

Comedy revue “The Capitol Steps: When Bush Comes to Shove” now is skedded for the Houseman.

Other B.O. losers for 2001-02 include the musicals “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” “Bat Boy,” “Reefer Madness” and “Summer of ’42” and the plays “The Shape of Things” by Neil LaBute, “Necessary Targets” by Eve Ensler and “Havana Is Waiting” by Eduardo Machado.

The concert musical “Love, Janis” preemed a year ago at the Village Theater and may eventually enter profitable territory. Infinitely more curious B.O.-wise is Trish Vradenburg’s play “Surviving Grace,” which continues at the Union Square despite negative reviews and a weekly TV ad budget that rivals any Broadway musical.

Otherwise, the few Off Broadway money-makers are all long-runners: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” “The Vagina Monologues” and revue-like entertainments that are neither play nor musical, such as “De La Guarda,” “Stomp” and “Forbidden Broadway,” among a very few others.

One factor: Cutting-edge plays and musicals that in recent years might have opened and stayed Off Broadway are more likely this season to be transferred to or open on Broadway. At the moment, those titles include “Topdog/Underdog,” “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?,” “Metamorphoses” and “Urinetown.” For two years running, the Pulitzer Prize has gone to plays on Broadway, “Proof” and “Topdog/Underdog.”

Not so long ago, the legit honor went to such Off Broadway fare as “Dinner With Friends” and “How I Learned to Drive.”

Robyn Goodman, a producer on “Metamorphoses” as well as “Bat Boy” and “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” explains the weak B.O. by pointing to the after-effects of Sept. 11 and the competition from Broadway and the not-for-profit theaters, where plays like “Topdog” usually originate before they make a commercial transfer.

“The focus is on Broadway,” says Ben Sprecher, a producer on “Mr. Goldwyn” and Broadway’s “Fortune’s Fool.” “This season, Off Broadway is just not getting the attention. I felt it was different a few years ago.” Post-Sept. 11, Broadway grabbed media headlines, but Off Broadway never did.

As a result, word of mouth for Off Broadway shows has built more slowly. And the margin between break-even and gross potential continues to be much less than on Broadway.

Producer Jeffrey Richards says “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” had been profitable in most weeks of its run at the Century Center. “We decided we would like to go out doing as well as we have thus far,” he explains. “It would be unwise to risk our gains during what looks to be a very challenging summer Off Broadway.”

“Complete Works” will go out on tour next year under the auspices of Ken Gentry and Network Presentations. Despite the gloomy forecast, producers are lining up to fill Off Broadway’s larger commercial theaters.

In June, the musical “Thunder Knockin’ at the Door” replaces “The Last Five Years” at the Minetta Lane.

“Jolson & Co.,” a musical last seen in Gotham at the not-for-profit York Theater, moves into the Century Center in August.

The play “Ctrl+Alt+Delete” by Anthony Clarvoe goes into Playhouse 91, current home of “The Syringa Tree”; Thomas McCormack’s drama about the publishing biz, “Endpapers,” soon enters the Variety Arts; and when “Capitol Steps” ends its limited run at the John Houseman in August, the tuner “Little Ham” quickly takes up residence there.

Battered but somehow buoyant, the new season begins.