PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, April 6-12: Topdog/Underdog Has Its Day

News   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, April 6-12: Topdog/Underdog Has Its Day I'm guessing that, until the day she dies, playwright Suzan Lori Parks will remember April 8, 2002, as perhaps the most significant — or at least the most exciting — day of her career. On that Monday (perhaps the best Monday anyone's ever experienced), she woke to triumphant reviews of her first Broadway play, Topdog/Underdog. Then, just in case the thrill was dying off a bit after breakfast and lunch, the Columbia School of Journalism gave her a little boost by awarding her work the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
Mos Def and Suzan-Lori Parks, Elaine Stritch in At Liberty and Melissa Errico.
Mos Def and Suzan-Lori Parks, Elaine Stritch in At Liberty and Melissa Errico. (Photo by Parks photo by Aubrey Reuben, Stritch by Joan Marcus)

I'm guessing that, until the day she dies, playwright Suzan Lori Parks will remember April 8, 2002, as perhaps the most significant — or at least the most exciting — day of her career. On that Monday (perhaps the best Monday anyone's ever experienced), she woke to triumphant reviews of her first Broadway play, Topdog/Underdog. Then, just in case the thrill was dying off a bit after breakfast and lunch, the Columbia School of Journalism gave her a little boost by awarding her work the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.

Parks is the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. As such, she is able not only to enjoy her good fortune, but to bask in the idea that, as Halle Berry said a few weeks ago at the Oscar ceremony, the moment was bigger that she was. (Of the two finalists for the prize, Rebecca Gilman is also a woman and Dael Orlandersmith a woman of color; so it's a good bet that the all-male Pulitzer jury of Ben Brantley, Robert Brustein and Steven Winn are feeling pretty noble and enlightened these days.)

So: great reviews, Pulitzer Prize. That equals a hit, right? It did for Wit, and Dinner with Friends and Proof. But for the week ending April 7, attendance at Topdog stood at a humbling 27.10 percent, the second lowest turnout on Broadway. One would imagine that matters have improved since then, but few are betting serious money that Parks' drama will turn into a blockbuster. Topdog's race-oriented themes are more troubling and less palatable to the hoi-polloi than. say, the mental illness and family themes found in Proof. Plus, non-musical African-American material has always been a hard sell on Broadway.

Parks is one of the people who will benefit from a new bill introduced in the U.S. Senate on April 10. The legislation would allow playwrights to do what every other major group of theatrical creative types have done for years and years: negotiate Broadway contracts as a group. Why don't playwrights already have this right? Why did they have to go to Congress to get it? Good questions. The answers are also good, but not easy to understand.

Up until now, anti-trust laws have forced scribes to negotiate such things as royalties, licensing of titles, development and productions as independent contractors. Unlike, say, Actors' Equity, The Dramatists Guild is an association, not a union and is not covered under the National Labor Relations Act. As a result, anti-trust laws prevent the guild's members from sitting down as a whole to negotiate a Broadway production contract. Instead, each writer works out an individual contract. And guess what? There's strength in numbers. The producers know that. When playwrights broached the topic a couple decades ago, the League of American Theatres and Producers hit the guild with an anti-trust action. Since then, discussions haven't progressed much. They probably will now begin afresh. All in all, it wasn't a great week for the League. Beyond the playwright legislation, there was a unpleasant resolution from Actors' Equity. The union's council has urged the union's members to boycott the National Broadway Touring Awards (NBTA), the prizes established last year by the League. Equity has charged union actors with the following (the capitalization is Equity's): "If you have been nominated, please request that your name be withdrawn from the nomination and the voting process. Please DO NOT ATTEND the awards ceremony in May. Please DO NOT ACCEPT an award if you win."

The League created the NBTAs to honor performances and productions on the road. The voting is audience-oriented and done by theatregores via the internet or by mailing in ballots distributed in the lobbies of participating theatres around the country. Equity objected to the prizes last year because many of the eligible shows were non-union. The League says there are no non-Equity shows in contention this year. Still, the union has targeted the trophies. A spokesman for Equity said the new boycott has nothing to do with the voting process or the awards themselves, but is a reaction to producers' increasing use of non-union personnel in national tours of Broadway shows.

A bit older than the NBTAs are the Tony Awards, which on April 11 passed sentence on a number of eligibility questions. It's these meetings that often breed the many controversies that forever surround the Tonys. But this batch of rulings seemed harmless enough (though time will tell). The Tony Administration Committee ruled that the current season's solo shows starring Elaine Stritch, Bea Arthur, Barbara Cook and John Leguizamo are eligible for Tony Awards in the young category of Special Theatrical Event. The ruling presents the very real possibility that the two-year-old category will be filled this year. In 2001, Special Theatrical Event boasted only one nominee: the drum and bugle corps fantasia Blast!. In other news, the Tonys ruled that Peter Parnell's QED is eligible in the Best Play category. The work runs only on Sundays and Mondays at the Beaumont, on Contact's off nights.

The mania for vintage 1980s shows continues. A new production of the offbeat Off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors is being prepped for a Broadway berth. The Frankel-Routh-Viertel-Baruch Group—some of the folks who backed The Producers— are behind the venture. A recent casting notice has the mounting playing a six week, out-of-town tryout beginning in October. The targeted Broadway arrival in January 2003.

The hit French, Michel Legrand musical Le Passe Muraille has changed its name to Amour—a French word Americans can understand—and solidified its Broadway plans. The stars are Melissa Errico and Malcolm Gets. The theatre is the Music Box. And the opening date is Oct. 15.

Errico has certainly emerged from hiding. After being briefly heralded as the Next Big Thing, she took enough of a beating in the ill-fated 1998 musical High Society that she would hardly have been faulted if she'd never returned to the stage. But she has, and in triplicate. Currently performing her cabaret act at Cafe Carlyle, she will play Dot in Sunday in the Park with George at the Kennedy Center this summer before finally returning to Broadway in Amour in the fall.

—By Robert Simonson