The Playgoer: Perils of Non-Profit

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Thursday, June 09, 2005

Perils of Non-Profit

Yesterday's Times story on the woes of the Manhattan Theatre Club raises a lot a key issues for the "mega" non-profit companies in New York--not only MTC, but the Roundabout and Lincoln Center as well. (Gerard Schoenfeld of the decidedly for-profit Shuberts insists these rivals of his be labeled non-taxed instead.)

Part of the story here is MTC's ongoing quagmire with the huge Biltmore theatre they recently bought and renovated for themselves. (Frankly a desperate and ill-advised try at going toe-to-toe with the Roundabout's transformation of the old Selwyn into the "American Airlines Theatre." If you're gonna sell out, Roundabout shows us, sell big!) MTC has so far not been able to fill this theatre with a bona fide hit. Instead a string of plays ranging from the promising but unrealized (Richard Greenberg Violet Hour, Donald Margulies's Brooklyn Boy) to the downright thudding (Drowning Crow and the current Elaine May cringer After The Night and the Music) I'm all for (good) plays that are not hits, but what else is the point of buying a huge theatre!

But there's a biting irony here, not pointed out by the article, nor anyone else I've heard (but surely on the lips, or at least minds, of everyone at MTC headquarters). MTC finally is back on its feet with the Tony-winning Doubt, a play they originated in their smaller (original) Off-Broadway space. Gee, why didn't they put that in the Biltmore? The answer is it was already booked with the Elaine May one-acts, which the Sun's Helen Shaw compared "the weaker skits at the end of Saturday Night Live."

The larger picture here is not whether MTC ever can fill their behemoth while still doing "honorable" plays. (I must say Roundabout has not done a bad job at that over at "AA". It's their casting and production choices that sometimes lack honor.) Instead, I leave you with: where should new plays (or even just "straight" non-musical plays) be produced at all? Here's Donald Margulies himself commenting on his two recent MTC productions, Brooklyn Boy and the not-thudding and somewhat well received revival of his Sight Unseen:

"Sight Unseen" was the first play that worked at the Biltmore," Mr. Margulies said. "It was an appropriate choice to remount on a Broadway stage - a play that M.T.C. had produced half-a-generation ago. 'Brooklyn Boy' was a different gambit because it's a new play. I don't think [the MTC producers] would disagree that they haven't quite mastered the Biltmore. It's a Catch-22 because it's a Broadway theater that's a subscription house and each production has a finite number of weeks. I would think twice before opening a new play at the Biltmore again until we figure it out."
To be continued later: Great New Plays Ruined by Their Producers' Stupid Insistence on Taking Them to Broadway...

Holy Cow-- just after I posted, guess what Variety scooped this article on: "The Manhattan Theater Club has canceled its Broadway revival of Lanford Wilson's "Talley's Folly," which was to have been helmed by Tony winner Doug Hughes ("Doubt")." For the skinny, read here...

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