For Short-Run Plays, the Odds Grow Longer During Strike

The Broadway stagehands' strike has left many playgoers disappointed but has also benefited off-Broadway shows.
The Broadway stagehands' strike has left many playgoers disappointed but has also benefited off-Broadway shows. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 19, 2007

NEW YORK -- As limited runs go, the Broadway engagement of "August: Osage County" has gotten more limited by the day.

The nine-day-old stagehands' strike that has shuttered 27 shows, from "Rent" to "Wicked" to "Legally Blonde," is a hardship for ticket holders and test of wills for union leaders and theater producers, whose negotiations for a new contract broke down Sunday night. But consider the special agonies it has posed for a risky Broadway venture like "August," a little-known play by a little-known Chicago playwright with only a small window of time to make it in New York.

The audience for a non-musical comedy or drama has shrunk to such marginal proportions that producers of straight plays almost never book big Broadway houses anymore for the traditional open-ended run -- the extended engagements that signaled true hit status. Those have become virtually the exclusive province of the massive musicals that draw hordes of tourists and can park in theaters for years and years. "August," like other current straight-play offerings such as Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll," set their closing dates -- in "August's" case, Feb. 17 -- partly in the hopes the deadline will compel playgoers to rush to get seats.

Each day of the strike, then, has been like a tick of a doomsday clock for "August," a family drama by Tracy Letts whose characters were described by some ecstatic reviewers in Chicago as belonging in a category with those of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams. Its Tuesday opening will have to be postponed, and its cast members, many of whom are part of Chicago's highly regarded Steppenwolf Theatre Company, must bide their time in their short-term New York sublets. (After talks broke off Sunday night, performances for more than two dozen Broadway shows were canceled through Nov. 25, the lucrative Thanksgiving holiday weekend.)

"What's hurt is that the momentum generated by word of mouth has slowed," says Jeffrey Richards, one of the play's producers. For the show's early previews, audiences had been enthusiastic, he explains. Even if the strike is settled in the near future, that head of steam has dissipated.

"So the window," Richards adds, "has been narrowed."

The sight of the stagehands picketing over the weekend in front of the Imperial Theatre on West 45th Street, where "August" is supposed to be playing, had a profoundly depressing effect. Times Square was still buzzing -- eight shows, in Broadway theaters with separate agreements with Local 1 of the stagehands' union, were not hit by the strike -- but the darkened playhouses and sparsely filled watering holes suffused the theater district with an air of diminishing returns.

By the cruelty of timing, the strike has presented the gravest threat to the dramas Broadway most needs to cultivate. And no block reflected the threat more graphically than West 45th between Seventh and Eighth avenues, which this fall has the unofficial honor of being new-play central.

Next door to the Imperial, at the Music Box, Aaron Sorkin's play about the beginnings of television, "The Farnsworth Invention," like "August," has had to push back opening night. Across the street at the Booth Theatre, "The Seafarer," the latest drama by Ireland's Conor McPherson, whose superb "Shining City" is playing at Studio Theatre in Washington, had also been waiting for the critics to come. And next door to the Booth, at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, Tom Stoppard's recently opened "Rock 'n' Roll" had only just begun trying to establish a toehold. (The one musical scheduled to open before Christmas, Disney's "The Little Mermaid," has been hit by the strike as well.) Small circles of picketers clustered in front of each theater, where signs were pasted on box office doors instructing theatergoers how to obtain refunds.

At issue in the talks between Local 1 and the League of American Theaters and Producers are the rules governing staffing requirements for stagehands. The two sides have been unable to reach agreement on producers' efforts to reduce the number they have to hire for a given show.

"The really sad thing is that we're always complaining about the dearth of new American plays -- of all new plays -- on Broadway, and right now we've got a lot of great new plays," says Patrick Page, an actor who has worked both on Broadway and at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company. "And the strike puts all of this in jeopardy."

Page at the moment had his own Broadway headache. He plays the Grinch in the limited run of "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," a holiday-season musical at the St. James Theatre on West 44th. But the St. James is one of the houses the stagehands are striking. So, he, too, is watching an opportunity slipping away; the show has to clear out on Jan. 6.

The cast did get to its opening-night party. "It was a great, great night," Page says. The strike started the very next morning, and Page was out on the street in front of the theater, informing parents and kids who had shown up that there would be no Seuss onstage for them. "I got," he says, "a lot of shocked responses."

Naturally, some of the people who've been shut out of the shows they were expecting to see have been looking for alternate diversions, and this has proved a boon to a number of off-Broadway productions that struggle harder to lure tourists -- who now make up the majority of ticket buyers on Broadway.

Among the beneficiaries has been a clever little musical, "Altar Boyz," a long-running spoof built around the idea of a fictitious faith-based boy band. All week, groups that had booked Broadway shows were re-booking "Altar Boyz"; on Tuesday, says producer Ken Davenport, that included a group of 55 people from Maryland who'd been displaced from the musical "Curtains."

Davenport rushed to the theater to gauge the reaction of these newcomers. "I was nervous," he says. "We've always had a difficult time penetrating that market. But these 55 people, after they saw it, they stood up with everybody else."

His belief is that this helps open up that market. "They will spread the word -- 55 people on the bus back to Maryland. They'll go and talk about what a good time they had."

Good word of mouth is golden in the theater business. And though the Broadway producers have amassed a contingency fund to help make up some of the money lost in the strike, there is no replacement for the positive energy represented by an audience that is happy with what it has seen.

So producers like "August's" Richards can only hope that after the settlement the word will be able to get out again quickly to lovers of serious drama. "My partners and I are dedicated to this play," he says. "We will open this play on Broadway, and we're just hoping to do it sooner than later."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company