The Washington Post

Molly Smith signs on to spread Broadway wings with ‘Velocity of Autumn’

Molly Smith, the artistic director of Arena Stage, in April 2011. Smith has agreed to direct Eric Coble’s two-character play ‘The Velocity of Autumn’ in hopes that the project will find an available Broadway house as well as financing. This would be Smith’s Broadway directing debut. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

If all goes as planned, a high-profile Washington stage director will be making her Broadway debut this spring, shepherding a new play by a dramatist who will also be having his freshman experience on American theater’s most visible platform.

Molly Smith, Arena Stage’s artistic director, has signed on to direct Eric Coble’s “The Velocity of Autumn,” a two-character play that is to star Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella, said the show’s lead producer, Larry Kaye. The piece tells the story of an angry 80-year-old Brooklyn artist who barricades herself in her brownstone and threatens to blow herself up.

The deal is not yet a sure thing, however. “The Velocity of Autumn” still must find an available Broadway house, and the financing for the multimillion-dollar venture is not yet in place — two of the guarantors of an opening night. Kaye, a Bethesda-based producer who has invested in other Broadway shows, such as “American Idiot” and the revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” says he is at the beginning of the process of finding others who will put money into the venture.

Still, the retention of a major New York theater public-relations firm, the Hartman Group, and the casting of the Oscar-winning Parsons (for “Bonnie and Clyde”) and Tony-winner Spinella (for “Angels in America”) are significant steps in the project’s development. In addition to announcing Smith’s hiring, Kaye also disclosed that the design team will consist of Eugene Lee on sets, Howell Binkley on lighting, Linda Cho for costumes and Darren L. West for sound design.

“There are very few women who have the opportunity to direct on Broadway, and I think it’s a beautiful, brilliant new play,” Smith said by phone from Arena, where she’s in rehearsals for a revival of “My Fair Lady,’’ beginning performances Nov. 2. “And to have the opportunity to work with all of these superb artists and designers is a real thrill for me.”

Smith directed a piece by the Five Lesbian Brothers off-Broadway before becoming Arena’s artistic director. And although productions that have started at Arena ended up on Broadway, such as the Moises Kaufman-directed “33 Variations,” Smith has not yet broken into the circle of experienced directors with Broadway on their résumés.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of Molly Smith,” says Kaye, a lawyer with a longtime theatergoing habit who has been attending plays at Arena all his life. “She’s a talented director who gets the deep relationships that exist between people.’’

Those skills are what made Kaye think Smith would be right for “The Velocity of Autumn,” which is to detail the confrontation between Parsons’s Alexandra and Spinella as her estranged youngest son, Chris, who sneaks into the house where his mother, irate over the indignities of old age, has surrounded herself with molotov cocktails.

Although a precise spring timetable still depends on the availability of a theater, Smith says she has no directorial conflicts around that time at Arena.

Coble, a playwright and screenwriter who was born in Scotland and is based in Cleveland, has had his work produced at theaters off-Broadway and across the country; in 2003, his “Bright Ideas” was produced at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., and soon after at MCC Theater in New York. “The Velocity of Autumn” first was produced last year at Idaho’s Boise Contemporary Theater and then this year at Cleveland’s Beck Center for the Arts.

It was on the basis of what he saw in Cleveland that Kaye decided to pursue a New York path for “Velocity.” And when Parsons traveled to Washington a few months ago for a reading of the play, the path was set. Not only had Coble written the play with Parsons in mind, Kaye explained, but there were also the rewards, too, of what the actress did with the part even in informal surroundings.

“I’ve never seen anyone attack a reading like she did,” he said.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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