PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Jan. 3-9: Stranger Things Have Happened

ICYMI   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Jan. 3-9: Stranger Things Have Happened
There seems to be no way of predicting what shows will graduate to Broadway these days—or Off-Broadway, for that matter. Just when the Street was recovering from such debacles as Bobbi Boland, The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks—shows which some critics openly stated shouldn't have come to Broadway in the first place—comes news that another unlikely property by an unknown playwright is headed to Times Square.

Duet, a modest play depicting a fictional meeting between 19th century stage divas Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse debuted at the tiny Greenwich Street Theatre on Dec. 4. Despite the presence of two creditable actresses, Laura Esterman and Pamela Payton Wright, few expected this first effort by Otho Eskins (a former diplomat) to go beyond its stated Jan. 4 end date. Poor reviews didn't change observers' minds. But two extensions followed, plus a relatively lavish advertising campaign. Then, on Jan. 9, it was announced, as jaws dropped along 42nd Street, that it would move to Broadway's Circle in the Square in March. The producer is Ludovica Villar-Hauser, the same determined person who propelled the initially little-heralded play The Countess to a 634-performance run Off-Broadway a few years back.

Tony Kushner is not an unknown talent, but the process by which his Caroline, or Change is getting spirited to Broadway is no less singular than Duet's. Kushner may be one of the few universally loved and respected creatures in the theatre world. Or so it would seem, the way the rich and powerful are circling their late-model, fully-equipped wagons to give his latest creation a Rialto address. Among the players chipping in for the move, according to reports, are such big wheels as Carole Shorenstein Hays, Scott Rudin, the Frankel, Baruch, Viertel, Routh Group, Fox Theatricals, Freddy De Mann, Daryl Roth, Margo Lion, Roger Berlind, Rocco Landesman, and HBO. How many millionaire friends can one guy have?

Off-Broadway, strange things are also afoot. Toward the end of 2003, many of the city's prime Off-Broadway commercial houses emptied out. Typically, these coveted pieces of real estate are quickly jumped upon. But, this time they sat on the shelf like so much overstocked Christmas merchandise. Recently, producers have finally started to book these theatres, and with some unusual attractions. The Century Center for the Performing Arts, which just said goodbye to works by Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee, says hello March 4 to, uh, Johnny Guitar-The Lounge Western. This creation by librettist Nicholas van Hoogstraten, lyricist-composer Joel Higgins, and composer Martin Silvestri, is based on an overripe 1954 western featuring Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in two notorious, over-the-top performances. The piece is described by van Hoogstraten as arch, but not camp.

At the Jane Street Theatre, meanwhile, Feb. 17 will mark the debut of something called Ministry of Progress, a show whipped up by director Kim Hughes from a one-act radio play into a full-length stage musical. More than a decade in the making, it features a score created by a gaggle of composers. The plot concerns Dave, a government worker who receives a driver's license that says he was born in Cracow, Poland, in 1921, and so goes to the Ministry of Progress to discover his true identity.

The Minetta Lane Theatre will, on Feb. 20, be the new home of the New Victory Theater fall hit Cookin'. The longest-running show in Korea's history (!), the show is about four very tense chefs who are given an hour to create an entire wedding banquet. Food, plates, broomsticks and utensils fly. And unconfirmed reports have another show outa nowhere, The Joy of Sex, coming to the Variety Arts. The piece is the latest New York Fringe show to get a chance at the big time. A musical with tunes by David Weinstein and lyrics by Melissa Levis, the 2002 production included songs such as "Intercourse on the Internet," "In the Parlor Be a Lady, In the Bedroom Be a Whore" and "The Three Way in Three Acts." Sometimes the little guy wins out. The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center's new artistic director, J. Ranelli, this week has announced that the widely respected nonprofit will continue its policy of open play submissions.

In mid-September, the Playwrights Conference at the Center and its then artistic director, James Houghton, set off a firestorm of protest when it was revealed that the long-standing open-submission policy would end due to a growing debt and a lack of staff to handle the numerous plays submitted every year. The move was not welcomed by the playwriting community, angering unknown and famous playwrights alike. "This is crucial for its real and symbolic value," Ranelli told the New York Times.

Theatre de Complicite, the adventuresome London troupe which typically floors critics during its Gotham visit, will return to New York this summer with its latest critical success, Elephant Vanishes. Its host will be the Lincoln Center Festival. Dates are July 21-25.

Would you pay $125 to be exposed to five grim tales by Neil LaBute, perhaps theatre's most pessimistic moralist? MCC Theatre will find out this March when it presents Autoban, a collection of five one-acts, at 42nd Street's Little Shubert Theatre. MCC loves LaBute. The company produced his The Mercy Seat in late 2002, and will present another LaBute work, The Distance From Here, beginning April 14.

Brian Kulick, the new artistic director of Classic Stage Company, started his reign ambitiously, with the Jan. 8 beginning of The Mysteries, a fresh imagining of the York and Wakefield Biblical plays that were all the rage in medieval times. Audiences will be treated to the meaty stories of such inseparable duos as Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Abraham and Isaac, not to mention Noah's Flood and Christ's Passion.

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