The first production of Naomi Wallace's drama, Birdy, went well enough at North Carolina's Duke University in March to keep the show on pace for a Broadway arrival sometime this season. General manager Roger Alan Gindi had hoped to bring the play in during 1999-2000, but all year long there was a traffic jam of shows trying to squeeze into too few available houses. Instead, Gindi told Playbill On-Line (June 1) Birdy will fly in either in the fall or, much more likely, spring 2001: "We don't know whether we want to come directly into New York in the spring or do an out-of-town tryout (a Shubert in Boston kind of thing) and then come in. Then again, if a not-for-profit came around and said, `come to us in October and hit New York in November,' we haven't ruled that out either."
In an early-April conversation, Gindi cited a positive review in Variety as validation that the play "did very well" in its Duke premiere. "We were very happy with the cast," Gindi added, though he says neither he nor the castmembers are contractually committed to subsequent productions. As for the piece itself, it's stage ready, Gindi says, though "more performance time would certainly fine tune it."
Birdy played at Duke University's Reynolds Industrial Theatre March 7-19, officially opening there March 9. Previously, Gindi had said that the show couldn't come to Off-Broadway because, "the set is too big. It's a double decker, double-rigged turntable constructed like a wedding cake."
Spring Sirkin and Benjamin Mordecai are co-producing the play, based on William Wharton's off-beat novel. Director Kevin Knight, who directed the acclaimed 1997 London premiere of Birdy, also staged the U.S. premiere at Philadelphia Theatre Company in June 1998 and is slated to direct the Broadway mounting.
Grant Show, seen Off-Broadway in Wit and best known for his years on TV's "Melrose Place," played Al in Duke University's staging of Birdy. Wallace Acton played the title character in the drama. Acton received a 1996 Helen Hayes Award for his work in a Washington DC mounting of Henry VI. Bryan Richards (younger Al), Robert Hogan (Dr. Weiss), Michael Pitt (Younger Birdy) and Teagle Bougere (Renaldi) comprised the remaining Duke cast. Pitt played Henry on TV's "Dawson's Creek," Bougere appeared in the Patrick Stewart Tempest on Broadway a few seasons back.
As with the William Wharton novel and Alan Parker film, Birdy is set in Philadelphia, just after World War II. Moving freely between the present and the past, it examines the friendship between the sensitive Birdy, obsessed with birds, and Al, obsessed with body-building, and their struggle with identity in an unaccepting, rigid society. The play calls for six actors: as Birdy and his friend Al, in both teen and adult years, a hospital orderly and an army psychiatrist. The novel is written as a series of monologues for two voices, one (in italics) from Birdy explaining how he became so entranced by raising canaries and watching them fly; the other from Al, brutalized by his dad and injured in the war but hoping to get his buddy out of the army's psychiatric ward. According to general manager Gindi, the play takes place in the present on a two-level set, where flashbacks can occur simultaneously with current action.
Author Wallace's previous plays include One Flea Spare, Slaughter City, In the Heart of America and The War Boys.
Asked about the Duke University-Broadway connection, the theatre department's managing director, Zannie Voss, told Playbill On-Line (Oct. 6), "Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Duke premiered a number of shows (mainly via producer Emanuel Azenberg) that were on their way to Broadway. Over the last five years, we've been working with Ford's Theatre in DC. We co-produced the musical Kudzu and, last year, the Jonathan Bolt, Thomas Tierney and John Forster musical Eleanor, about Eleanor Roosevelt. This is the first time in five years we've worked with a commercial producer."
Johnson-Liff Associates, in New York, is casting the show. Capitalization for the Duke mounting was projected at $200,000, with running costs bringing the run to the $330,000 range. Director Knight (set), Jane Greenwood (costumes) and Brian Nason (lighting), who designed the show in London, repeated their work.
Philadelphia Theatre Company producing artistic director Sara Garonzik told Playbill On-Line that PTC would be credited for staging Birdy's American premiere and would have some financial piece of the New York staging but would not be creatively involved in this separate mounting. "We were tipped off that things were afoot," Garonzik said, when we received a call regarding immigration papers for Kevin Knight."
Asked if Duke would get a piece of the New York pie, Voss said, "We're still in negotiations on the financial end, though we'll certainly continue to get recognition for our production when it comes to New York."
While Birdy was taking its pre-Broadway flight at Duke, the theatre is also readying a workshop presentation of Nilo Cruz's new play, Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams Faculty member Jody McAuliffe will direct the staging, April 20-22.
According to Anna Upchurch, marketing manager for Theatre Previews at Duke, the show is in the process of casting and will likely include a mix of students and professional actors. The piece tells of a young woman journalist, Luciana, returning to her native Cuba. A drama with comic moments, the show also contains "dreamlike and surreal elements," according to Upchurch.
Theatre Previews at Duke generally presents one mainstage and one workshop production each spring. Last season's mainstage offering was the musical Eleanor: An American Love Story, co-produced with Ford's Theatre in Washington DC. The show went on to a three-month run at Ford's and has also released an original cast recording. The workshop was of Jose Rivera's References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot.
-- By David Lefkowitz