PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Jan. 12-18: LORT-a-Mighty!

News   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Jan. 12-18: LORT-a-Mighty! Thou Shalt Not, the Susan Stroman-Harry Connick, Jr. musical which recently closed on Broadway, was a Lincoln Center Theater production. Yet, it was not at Lincoln Center, which consists of only two spaces, the Vivian Beaumont and the Mitzi Newhouse, only the first of which is considered a Broadway- level house. It played at the Plymouth from first preview to last performance. The Plymouth is operated under the Actors' Equity's prize pact, known as the Production Contract, which covers all commercial Broadway shows. Because LCT is a nonprofit theatre, and a member of the League of Resident Theatre (LORT), however, Thou Shalt Not was produced under a less-expensive LORT contract.
LORT to Broadway transfers: Thou Shalt Not, Follies, The Invention of Love.
LORT to Broadway transfers: Thou Shalt Not, Follies, The Invention of Love. (Photo by <i>Thou, Love</i> by Paul Kolnik, <i>Follies</i> by Joan Marcus)

Thou Shalt Not, the Susan Stroman-Harry Connick, Jr. musical which recently closed on Broadway, was a Lincoln Center Theater production. Yet, it was not at Lincoln Center, which consists of only two spaces, the Vivian Beaumont and the Mitzi Newhouse, only the first of which is considered a Broadway- level house. It played at the Plymouth from first preview to last performance. The Plymouth is operated under the Actors' Equity's prize pact, known as the Production Contract, which covers all commercial Broadway shows. Because LCT is a nonprofit theatre, and a member of the League of Resident Theatre (LORT), however, Thou Shalt Not was produced under a less-expensive LORT contract.

Thou Shalt Not is exactly what Equity would have liked to have said to LCT when it staged that show. And that's exactly what it might have the power to command after the current contract talks between the union and LORT, which begin Jan. 22, and could seriously alter the Broadway landscape.

Lincoln Center, the country's largest nonprofit theatre, isn't the only target of Equity's campaign. The Roundabout Theatre Company is also on the powerful union's mind. The two institutions have similar production strategies. They both call a Tony-eligible Broadway house their home—LCT has the Beaumont, Roundabout the American Airlines Theatre. On these stages they mount most of their shows. But, at least once a season, each company exports a play or musical (usually a musical) to another Broadway theatre, one which typically takes on commercial productions. Last year, for instance, the Roundabout sent Follies to the Belasco, while LCT staged The Invention of Love at the Lyceum, the same theatre where its revival of Morning's at Seven will rise.

This creates an odd paradox for Equity actors and stage managers. They look around and see a theatre ruled by the Production Contract; but they look in their pay envelope and find LORT-level money. This steams Equity no end. The union has decided it will bring this (in their view) unctuous practice to an end in 2002. (The state of affairs also irks commercial Broadway producers, who have often complained about having to compete for audiences and Tony Awards with "on-the-cheap" nonprofit Broadway ventures. Never mind that the awards are supposed to reward artistic merit, and I've never heard that more money or less money will necessarily secure you that.)

On one front, Equity seems to have already succeeded. According to a union spokesperson (none of the theatres involved will talk about the negotiations, so the union's word is all we have to go on), Equity recently rejected a bid by Manhattan Theatre Club — another powerhouse nonprofit which has often transferred its Off-Broadway successes to Broadway houses — to have its projected new home, the Biltmore Theatre on Broadway, fall under a LORT contract. The Roundabout, LCT and MTC can't be happy about the thrust of the coming talks. If Equity succeeds — and it usually gets very nearly what it wants — the two theatres' ambitions will doubtless shrink in the face of a mounting financial burden. Would the Roundabout have attempted the hyper-expensive Follies under Production Contract rules? Undoubtedly, no. Will LCT produce as much work if everything they try beyond its home base costs them twice as much? Probably not. And that may mean a lot fewer shows than one might think. With the hit Contact ensconced at the Beaumont, LCT has had only the Newhouse to work with for two years, forcing it to look elsewhere for extra stages.

It's hard to disagree with Equity's claim that the nonprofits are getting away with something. As the guild said in a press release, "When productions like Follies, Thou Shalt Not and The Invention of Love are A) presented in Production Contract house; B) Tony eligible; and C) are charging Broadway ticket prices, the actors and stage managers must be compensated at Broadway rates."

Still, one can't help but be troubled by yet another money grab, however virtuous, which will inevitably drive up already-too-high production costs and ticket prices. Furthermore, while Equity's attempt at fiscal fairness would increase the pay of members working in LCT and Roundabout Broadway productions, it would also almost certainly result in a decrease of such jobs; the theatres, unwilling or unable to meet the salaries, would simply decline to provide them. In other words, instead of better paying jobs in Thou Shalt Not, there would be no jobs. The show wouldn't be done.

Finally, fear of financial failure may curb LCT and the Roundabout's creative instincts. And supposedly, the theatre community depends on the nonprofit world to take more artistic risks. Sondheim's Assassin, a commercially dicey prospect, on Broadway without a LORT umbrella? Not likely.

Other news? Yes, there was some. That Morning's at Seven mentioned above has a cast that is used to working for far more money than can be found in a Production Contract paycheck. Among the actors are Buck Henry, Christopher Lloyd, Piper Laurie, Julie Hagerty, Frances Sternhagen and Estelle Parsons.

The Summer of '42 closed one day and Eve Ensler's latest work, Necessary Targets, which debuted at Hartford Stage, leaped on the Variety Arts Theatre the next. The show begins Feb. 14 and will likely feature its Hartford cast.

Two edgy Off-Broadway shows opened on Jan. 17: Manhattan Ensemble Theatre's sleek, amusing production of the literary classic The Castle; and Stephen Belber's Tape, which was a hit at the 2000 Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, and inspired a film version, at the hands of Naked Angels.

Daniel Sullivan, as always, keeps busy. In addition to Morning's at Seven, he is trying to bring William Nicholson's Retreat from Moscow to Broadway in the fall and hopes the last stop of his touring revival of Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport will also be Broadway, possibly in April.

Donna Murphy isn't exactly who you think of first when you're looking for a Helen of Troy. But then, the gal she'll play at the Public Theater in Ellen McLaughlin's Helen isn't the one that launched a thousand ships. She's a modern girl who has to work at her beauty with protein shakes and facials.

I should mention that a little show called The Fantasticks closed on Jan. 14. Thanks goodness! Now that poor suffering landlord can finally tear down that eyesore called the Sullivan Street Playhouse and Greenwich Village can further shed its seedy theatrical legacy. What might next rise at 181 Sullivan? A Starbucks, perhaps? Dare we hope? Lyricist-librettist Tom Jones, speaking at the final curtain of his show, offered condolences, saying "You can't be sad for a show that has run 42 years." Wanna bet?

—By Robert Simonson