David Lindsay-Abaire, author of the most-produced play in America this season, is sitting in a Brooklyn coffee shop, marveling at his excellent fortune. It isn’t a mere five or six professional theaters across the nation that are staging “Good People,” which tells of a working-class single mother from Boston who runs into an ex, now a well-heeled physician. No, it’s an astonishing 17 of them.
Chicago’s Steppenwolf, Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, Seattle Rep and the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles are among the high-profile companies mounting their own productions of the work, which ran at Manhattan Theatre Club on Broadway in the winter and spring of 2011. Arena Stage has its own version, as well, directed by Jackie Maxwell and starring Johanna Day, that began performances on Friday.
“Good People” is receiving such blanket national theatrical coverage that Lindsay-Abaire, 43, says he can’t hope to see all of the productions. It’s an enviable position for a mid-career dramatist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his previous Broadway work, the 2006 “Rabbit Hole,” and will receive royalties this year, many times over.
And still, for all the value in first-rate theater that “Good People” stands for, this example of copycat programming raises some questions about the creative health of the regional theater movement. For a decentralized performing art form that needs to maintain strong community bonds, is lock-step play selection an encouraging trend? “Good People,” after all, is not the only play of recent Broadway vintage suddenly showing up on the marquees of major nonprofit theaters all at once. Several other plays that ran on Broadway in the past few years, including “Clybourne Park,” “Other Desert Cities,” “The Mountaintop” and “Time Stands Still” are also being produced by 10 or more companies around the United States in the 2012-13 season.
In fact, according to the Theatre Communications Group, the trade organization for America’s nonprofit theaters, nine of the 11 most-produced plays this season opened on Broadway over the past four years. Only “The Whipping Man” (from off-Broadway) and “A Raisin in the Sun” (from 1959) don’t have newly minted Broadway pedigrees. In Washington, performances began on Wednesday at Studio Theatre of one of those 11, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “The Motherf---er With the Hat,” which ran two years ago on Broadway. In March, Arena is host to Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” a commercial success during a 117-performance stand on Broadway that ended in January 2012. And in April, Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” settles in at Arena, following a seven-month Broadway run that ended last June.
There’s no shame in offering accomplished works to audiences in cities that otherwise would not see them. (And what would the most-produced list look like, after all, if these works weren’t on it?) In the past, when straight drama was a more front-and-center cultural force in American life, commercial producers might have sent these plays on national tours, with some or all of their original Broadway casts. With the rare exception of a piece such as “War Horse,” plays are deemed too financially risky for tours these days. Still, the duplication of offerings is not what you’d call a point of pride. Some artistic directors at theaters whose identities are forged by unique choices of plays express a bit of embarrassment at what appears to be play selections made in a mind cloud.
“I have to remember I’m programming for a D.C. audience and not for the artistic directors of America,” said David Muse, artistic director of Studio Theatre, one of nine in the nation producing “Motherf---er” this season. “On the other hand, I hold onto this idea of regional theaters as art houses, and wanting to have distinct artistic identities. Like with many things, it’s just a question of balance.”
It is, of course, far easier to schedule a play that has performed well elsewhere, than to subject a company perpetually to the rigors of otherwise untested work. Some theaters say there is an absolute obligation to get these works in front of their audiences. “I think it’s the responsibility of theater companies to do a play like ‘Good People,’ the same way a play like ‘Red’ has to be done in different parts of the country,” said Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage, where the Tony Award-winning “Red” played a year ago to enthusiastic reviews and crowds. “Good People” is a wise and funny play that asks pertinent questions about social responsibility, about what specifically those who rise from humble origins might give back to those they left behind.
But it must also be noted that not merely proven critical or popular appeal propels these dramas onto the top 10. Many of these plays are also small-cast pieces, relatively inexpensive to produce. “Good People” has six characters; “Other Desert Cities” and “Motherf---er” five. One of the reasons Matthew Lopez’s Civil War-set “Whipping Man” — produced last spring by Theater J and Baltimore’s Centerstage — is being done in 14 productions during the 2012-13 season: It’s performed by a cast of three.
Ryan Rilette, recently installed as producing artistic director of Bethesda-based Round House Theatre, explains that sometimes a play is selected for practical as much as artistic concerns, as happened on occasion in his previous job as producing director of the Bay Area’s Marin Theatre Company. “The last show I did there, ‘God of Carnage,’ is one of those plays,” Rilette said of Yasmina Reza’s Broadway comedy — done in an astounding 23 regional professional productions during the 2011-12 season.
“It’s great and everyone wants to do it: It’s four characters and a single set. We did well with it. But it wasn’t one of our best-selling shows. My experience with those big-name shows is they’re not the runaway hits, but they’re solid.”
Which is what you might expect of contemporary plays in their ninth or 10th incarnation, assembled by people with skill, but not necessarily that extra inspiration and energy that are often apparent in a piece of theater in its original, visionary phases of development. What’s more worrying for some is the notion that ubiquitous plays, no matter how strong, push to the sidelines efforts to invigorate the proliferation of work by playwrights struggling for slots at regional theaters.
“As a playwright, I’m thrilled for him, it’s a big paycheck for him and I don’t disparage him for that at all,” Gwydion Suilebhan, a Washington dramatist who blogs about regional theater issues and is D.C.’s representative to the Dramatists Guild of America, says of Lindsay-Abaire and prominent writers like him. “At the same time, this sort of on-rush of culture from New York, outbound on a steam train to the rest of the country, drowns out the voices at the local level.
“There’s less room for grass-roots, ground-up, vox populi sort of theater when seasons are populated with more and more plays like that. It becomes one voice for the country, instead of a country full of voices.”
Studio’s Muse says that there’s a difference between “importing exactly what you saw in New York” and “when you see something and you say, ‘Wouldn’t that be interesting if you can do that in a smaller space, and the design were less mechanical and performances were more human-scaled?’ ” He says he believes that that’s the inherent challenge in Studio taking on a widely produced “Motherf---er.”
It should be noted that nestled among “Good People” and “Other Desert Cities” and “The Mountaintop,” Arena has on its calendar a world premiere, Tazewell Thompson’s “Mary T. and Lizzie K.,” detailing the friendship of Mary Todd Lincoln and black seamstress Elizabeth Keckly. It has also embarked on a year-long project with six local playwrights, assisting them as they meet and work on new plays.
A more reliable equilibrium between these impulses seems to be what Suilebhan advocates. “There’s no doubt that those shows will sell better, and that’s hard to argue with especially in troubling financial times,” he said. “At the same time, our theaters are not-for-profits; they have to have a responsibility to the community in which they live.”
Perceptions of how much more marketable a play of any notoriety might be by virtue of who wrote it is debatable: Lindsay-Abaire is nowhere close to a household name, though “Rabbit Hole” was well-received in its 2010 movie version with Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. His earlier, less naturalistic and more whimsical plays, like “Fuddy Meers” and “Kimberly Akimbo,” have been staged across the country, too, if with far less visibility. He views the success of “Good People” — which won a Tony for Frances McDormand — chiefly as a function of its social relevance, as it chronicles the confrontation between a woman who has not been able to move beyond menial jobs and a former lover who’s found material and career satisfaction.
“I think it’s tapping into the national dialogue that’s happening right now, about class mentality, about whether we owe anything to the people we’ve passed along the way,” observed Lindsay-Abaire, who grew up in working-class South Boston, the son of a fruit peddler. “Have I earned this spot? Do I have anyone to thank beside myself? That’s exactly what was going on during this election.”
He’s curious how it will play in Washington now: “For me, seeing the different productions is seeing how malleable that central role is.” The fact that the play has gotten so much national traction has been a boon, too, to the actress playing that central role at Arena. Day also starred in the piece at Boston’s Huntington Theatre last fall.
“It was just far enough away and close enough that I would still have those words lingering,” Day declared, explaining why she’s reprising the part — something she said she’s never done before. “And,” she added, “it’s one of the best parts a woman my age can play.”
by David Lindsay-Abaire. Through March 10 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300.
by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Through March 10 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300.