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Writers dig Roundabout Underground

'Trees' grows in fertile N.Y. program

NEW YORK Todd Haimes has no one to blame but himself.

“I never like high expectations,” sighs the artistic director of Roundabout Theater Company. But like ’em or not, elevated expectations are inevitable when a new program and theater space debut as successfully as Roundabout Underground did last season with Stephen Karam’s hit comedy “Speech & Debate.” That means the bar has been set pretty high for the Oct. 29 opening of Underground’s second play, Steven Levenson’s “The Language of Trees.”

There are worse problems to have.

Haimes and producer Robyn Goodman, who curates the series, launched Underground on the theory that promising young playwrights would have a better shot at success if they got an initial boost in the form of a low-profile, high-budget production. Name actors, professional designers, hot directors — all the things you can’t get if you’re performing in a loft downtown.

“There was a period not too long ago where there were three new plays being produced in New York, and they were at least really promising,” Haimes recalls. “And all three of the plays got kind of crucified. If you’re 26 or 27 years old and you’re told your play sucks, what’s the point of writing another?”

For “The Language of Trees,” about the family of an American translator in a Middle East war zone, Roundabout enlisted up-and-coming helmer Alex Timbers, best known for his work with his own company, the offbeat Les Freres Corbusier. And with Off Broadway regulars like Gio Perez and Natalie Gold in the cast, “Trees” is being watered and tended under ideal conditions.

There’s a reason few other companies can do this: The ratio of seats to production budget is a precise one, and most companies that produce in spaces the size of Underground (62 seats) have to choose between underfunding their productions or closing in the red.

However, Roundabout is a larger operation than most. Rather than run the theater on a shoestring, Haimes and Goodman decided to amp up production values, keep tickets under $20 and let the theater’s operating budget absorb the cost — but that cost is a deficit of at least $200,000, even if every seat for every perf is sold.

To Goodman, it’s worth every penny. The producer came into contact with “Trees” through the initial readings of “Speech & Debate.” The 24-year-old Levenson, one of Karam’s friends from Brown U., read one of the parts for her three times before the production team decided to cast someone else.

“I told him I felt terrible about it, because he had helped us so much,” Goodman explains. “And he said to me, ‘Really, I’m a playwright — will you read my play?’ Fearing the worst, I said, ‘Oh, of course!’ I couldn’t believe it — it was the best play I had read in a long time.”

In the interest of keeping Roundabout Underground from becoming the Center for Twentysomething Brown Alumni Named Steve, Goodman says she’s casting her net wider for the next piece. She’s reading work with particular attention to minority writers and women, while keeping one eye on Karam and Levenson, both of whom have commissions in the works for Roundabout as part of that first contract.

With the success of “Speech & Debate” under its belt (Karam’s play has since been snapped up for regional productions, with a film adaptation in development), the series’ future is a little safer than it was in 2007. Haimes hopes Underground will soon be able to expand to two shows a year.

After the exit of Roundabout donor Merrill Lynch, Haimes was concerned about continuing to eat the cost of the series, but was able to secure funding in the form of multiyear commitments from individual donors, Jodi Glucksman and Laura Rodgers in particular. It’s a strategy other nonprofits will be trying in the near future, with the retreat of so many potential corporate funders in the financial sector.