PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Sept. 20-26: Mad Playwrights and Englishmen

News   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Sept. 20-26: Mad Playwrights and Englishmen American playwrights had plenty of reason to grind their teeth this week. Just days after learning that the O'Neill Playwrights Conference— historically perhaps the nation's preeminent nurturer of new works and new dramatists—was this year to end its open submissions policy in favor of a committee-driven selection process, they had to listen as American producers Bob Boyett and Bill Haber announced that they had inked a deal with England's Royal National Theatre. The pact would give them the first opportunity to import National productions to the United States, and likely mean even more British plays in New York than we now see.

Anyone in the theatre who knows even one member of the Dramatists' Guild, knows of the unbending (and perhaps paranoid) belief among writers that U.S. producers prefer British stageworks over American, and are much more apt to back the most obscure of English or Irish writers before they put money on a praised homegrown author. Lincoln Center Theater is practically an English-American institution, they argue. The Tony Award voters are prestige-hungry Anglophiles. The New York Times has a British bias. And on, and on. For them, Boyett and Haber's present enthusiasm is a most depressing thing indeed. But don't expect their reaction to prevent Jerry Springer: The Opera, Tom Stoppard's Jumpers and Michael Frayn's Democracy—all RNT hits—from finding their way to Manhattan good and quick. The venting of playwrights has never made much of an impression of the theatrical power structure.

Take the aforementioned O'Neill situation. The reaction to Playwrights Conference artistic director James Houghton's decision to change the submission policy was so vehement (writers as prominent as Christopher Durang and Wendy Wasserstein were said to have weighed in against the change) that he was compelled to hold a Sept. 24 open forum at New Dramatists in Manhattan, so that playwrights could voice their objections. The New York Times reported that 100 writers showed up, including August Wilson and David Lindsay Abaire. Yet, according to the impression of one attendee (the press was not invited), the atmosphere of the meeting was one of dejected resignation, the writers realizing they were defeated before they spoke a single word. Perhaps, Boyett and Haber have the right idea. The future lies overseas. Edward Albee got his start in Berlin. Arthur Miller found solace and productions in London during his lean years in the '70s and '80s. Richard Nelson was for many years more appreciated in the UK than the U.S. Most recently, Christopher Shinn got his career going in London. So, go east, young playwright.

Despite all of the above developments, a new play by two Americans did manage to slip through the cracks this week. Omnium Gatherum, the fevered absurdist drama by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, where pundits and plutocrats dine while the world burns, opened at the Variety Arts Theatre on Sept. 25, and appears to be rattling the New York theatre community the way it shook up the Humana Festival earlier this year. Reviews were varied—some said the script was splendidly messy and the characters deliciously stereotypical; others said the script was dismayingly messy and the characters terribly stereotypical—but most agreed the satirical rollercoaster packed a wallop.

Herb Gardner, the Broadway dramatist whose plays you could count on one hand, died Sept. 24, at the age of 68, after a long illness. Though his productivity was low, his profile was high. It is doubtful that any steady theatregoer in the United States hasn't seen at least one production of A Thousand Clowns and I'm Not Rappaport.

Finally, as expected, the next tenant at the Roundabout Theatre Company's property Studio 54 will the John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim musical, Assassins. The production will begin in March, just as the 2004 Presidential race is heating up. Timing is everything.