Future attractions for the National Theatre have been put into a holding pattern while the Shubert Organization and British director Trevor Nunn continue to debate the fate of "Chess," the hit London show that the Shubert Organization is producing on Broadway this season.
The Shuberts, who book the National Theatre, favor a pre-Broadway tryout in Washington for the Tim Rice-Bjorn Ulvaeus-Benny Anderson musical, which uses an international chess match as a metaphor for competition between the superpowers. But sources close to the musical say Nunn, who directed the London production of "Chess" as well the megahits "Cats" and "Les Mise'rables," prefers to open cold in New York.
According to Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization, the decision will be made today. If the technologically complex musical does play here, it would probably occupy the National from mid-February to mid-June. If not, the time would be free for other bookings -- among them, Neil Simon's latest play, "Jake's Women."
Meanwhile, the Kennedy Center has landed Lily Tomlin's one-woman show, "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," a runaway 1985 Broadway hit. It will have a three-month engagement in the Eisenhower Theater, tentatively set to begin in March. Both the National and the Kennedy Center had been courting the celebrated performer, who reportedly favored one theater, then the other, for months -- even proposing at one point that she play both the Eisenhower and the National.
Only four shows played the National Theatre in 1987 for a total of 19 weeks; the theater has been dark since "Sweet Charity" closed on Oct. 17. No bookings have been announced since then, while Nunn and the Shuberts have sought to determine the destiny of "Chess."
The lack of attractions has become a source of contention between the Shuberts and the board of trustees of the National Theatre Corp., the nonprofit organization that governs the theater and hired the Shuberts seven years ago to manage it. In a letter to the Shuberts last fall, the board expressed "considerable concern about the uncertainty of our booking situation following 'Sweet Charity.' "
Signed by Donn Murphy, the board president, the letter further stated: "The interest of the board is not only in financial return, but in the posture of the National Theatre as a nonprofit cultural institution. Board members were dissatisfied with the number of dark weeks during recent months."
According to Phil Smith, executive vice president of the Shubert Organization, the number of dark weeks is a reflection of a general shortage of touring attractions. "The dark time at the National is no different than it is across the country," he said recently. "But that can turn around. It's cyclical in a way." The Shubert Theater in Los Angeles, he said, has been dark since last Christmas, after the long-running "Cats" closed.
"You're looking at a very expensive operation," Smith said of the National. "You can't put anything in there. You've got to put in product that makes money. Even a show like 'Ian McKellen Acting Shakespeare,' which was one actor, a few curtains and some lights, had to gross $107,000 a week for three weeks just to break even."
Bernard B. Jacobs, president of the Shubert Organization, has long considered Washington an ideal tryout town for "Chess," which opened in London in May 1986. Anticipating an American version, Jacobs said at the time that "a Washington premiere would give the show the kind of international launching it deserves. I would assume representatives of every important government would be present at the evening."
The situation, however, has since been complicated by conflicting demands on Nunn, one of the most sought after directors in the English-speaking theater. Although the London production of "Chess" is close to recovering its investment, reviews were mixed and playwright Richard Nelson has been hired to rework the libretto. The American production is expected to be considerably different from the London version.
In addition, the sets by Robin Wagner, employing the latest in stage technology, would require several weeks to install at the National, significantly increasing the costs of a Washington tryout.
If "Chess" bypasses Washington, Jacobs said, "M. Butterfly" could open Feb. 8 at the National. The drama, written by David Henry Hwang and directed by John Dexter, chronicles the love affair between a French diplomat and a transvestite Chinese opera singer. John Lithgow stars.
"M. Butterfly" could run until either Feb. 27 or March 5 -- the shorter run allowing for an engagement of "Macbeth," starring Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson. If "M. Butterfly" ran longer, it would probably be followed on March 28 by "Jake's Women," Simon's play about a novelist and six of the important women in his life.
"Cats" would then return at the end of April and run through mid-August. Finally, a touring version of the smash Broadway musical "Me and My Girl" would play the National from Aug. 22 through mid-November.
"Some of those shows may happen anyway," Jacobs said. "All depends when and if 'Chess' comes in."
Despite the recent dark periods at the National, the alliance with the Shubert Organization has been profitable for the National Theatre Corp. According to the annual report for 1986, the most recent available, the corporation, close to bankruptcy seven years ago, listed assets of more than $1 million.
"I don't think there's any intentional purpose on the part of the Shuberts to keep the National dark," said Murphy, who was unaware yesterday of recent booking developments. "I don't think they're negligent. They're cautious."