At a time of dwindling corporate support, pleasing hard-won subscribers is the name of the compromised game. But remember that our major nonprofits were founded to offer us a radical alternative to commercial Broadway values. Nationally, nonprofit theaters like San Diego’s venerable Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse have long since sold their souls by functioning as tryout houses for Broadway. (Jersey Boys began life at La Jolla; Footloose at the Old Globe.) The line between our major noncommercial theaters and Broadway is becoming dangerously blurred.
Roundabout is a cut above the blatantly commercial, but its bias is toward revival of the tried and true—forever Hedda Gabler, as it were, never Ghosts. Its conventional choices, alas, offer few surprises: the recent, tepid Suddenly Last Summer; the worthy Heartbreak House; the umpteenth A Streetcar Named Desire. The company’s 2004 production of Stephen Sondheim’s unsettling Assassins was an undeniably bold commitment—but that was an exception to its safe, predictable fare. In the past three years, there’s been a musical revival of the hokey old 110 in the Shade (1963), a vehicle for Audra McDonald; the minor (and forgotten) musical The Apple Tree (1960), a vehicle for Kristin Chenoweth; and The Threepenny Opera—which, by common critical consent, misunderstood and even butchered the Brecht/Weill masterpiece.
The Brecht/Weill apart, how many musicals are now left that are worth reviving? But there’s another question that concerns our playwrights far more: Who will encourage and stage new American drama? Like Lincoln Center, the Roundabout shops in England for its new plays (such as the recent production of Patrick Marber’s Howard Katz), or in the regional theaters. As a result, New York theaters lack uniqueness. More to the point, they’re crucially failing to generate new plays.
It so happens that Roundabout’s most successful revival began as a TV play that famously became Sidney Lumet’s first feature film in 1957. To me, Twelve Angry Men onstage is a dated old potboiler if ever there was one—why not stay home and rent the movie? The excellent 2004 production was nevertheless a hit, and it went on to a commercial national tour “direct from Broadway!”
As Gerald Schoenfeld of the Shubert Organization once put it, “There’s no profit like nonprofit.” The idea, doubtless, was that the extra revenue from Twelve Angry Men would help subsidize the real work. But what is the real work? The company’s record of creating new plays is no different from Lincoln Center’s, where a world premier by an American playwright is an event. In the past three years, Roundabout has created only two new dramas: Greg Kotis’ Pig Farm and Stephen Belber’s McReele.