Thursday, June 26, 2014

TCR Spotlight on Theater: Most Produced Plays in American Theaters, 2013-2014

Playbill from Venus in Fur,
Goodman Theatre, Chicago, March 2014
(Image/Seth Saith).
The most produced play in America during the now ending 2013-2014 theater season was Venus in Fur by David Ives.

In this two-character black comedy, which runs for an intermission-less ninety minutes, a theater director is having trouble finding the right actress to play the lead in his stage version of Venus in Furs (note the plural), the 1870 novella of female sexual domination and male submission by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (and the origin of the word masochist). When a disheveled and seemingly lame-brained actress shows up late for her audition, she and the director's interaction strangely begins to blend with the themes of Sacher-Masoch's racy novella.

David Ives is a veteran playwright whose work has been produced professionally since the 1970s. His collection of one-act comedies, All in the Timing, was the most produced play of the 1995-1996 season.

film version of Venus in Fur, directed by Roman Polanski, with a screenplay by Ives and Polanski, was released in June 2014.

According to Theater Communications Group, an organization of American regional theaters, Venus in Fur was produced by twenty-two of its member theaters, during the 2013-2014 season.

Reese Madigan and Greta Wohlrabe in Venus
in Fur
, Milwaukee Rep, September 2013
(photo/Milwaukee Rep).
Misha Berson in the Seattle Times, reviewing the Seattle Repertory Theatre production, calls Venus in Fur, "an explosive, erotic and cerebral dialectic" that is "a banquet for actors."

In her review of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater's production of Venus in Fur, Karen D'Souza of the San Jose Mercury News calls the play "a metatheatrical game of cat and mouse laced with titillation and plot twists" but adds that the "primary flaw in this play within a play is how easily you see into the heart of the matter. Loud echoes of everything from Genet's The Balcony to 50 Shades of Grey ensure that you see where this is going from the first kiss to the last slap."

Playwright David Ives
Other theaters staging Venus in Fur this past season include the Milwaukee Rep, the Cleveland Playhouse, Chicago's Goodman Theatre, the Huntington Theater in Boston, Houston's Alley Theatre, and Curious Theatre Company of Denver.

Venus in Fur premiered Off-Broadway in January 2010 and was produced on Broadway in the 2011-2012 season where it was nominated for a Tony Award for best play and its co-star, Nina Arianda, won the Tony for best actress.

With the exception of the children's play The Cat in the Hat, an adaptation of the Dr. Seuss book, all of the plays on this past season's most produced list were recently staged either on or Off-Broadway.

"The impetus to produce plays that have succeeded in New York stems, to various degrees, from a capitalist impulse to make money, an increasingly dated impulse for culture to flow outward from our country's largest cities, and risk-aversion among producers. Luckily, more and more regional theaters are beginning to experiment with (if not embrace) locally-grown and locally-relevant culture," Gwydion Suilebhan, a Washington, DC based playwright and DC's representative to The Dramatists Guild, told The Committee Room.

Robert Douglas (left), Taurean Blaque and Drew
Foster in The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez,
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, Sarasota. FL, January 2014
Andrea Torrence of  St. Louis Theatre Snob told TCR in regard to regional theater's New York emphasis -- "Of course that's going to be true of the Fox and the Peabody [large St. Louis venues that focus on producing musicals] but I think a mix of both is great." Torrence adds that "St. Louis is getting better about trying to encourage new play festivals."

The most produced list often includes at least one "modern classic" such as The Glass Menagerie, Our Town, or The Importance of Being Earnest. This past season's list, again excepting The Cat in the Hat, is made up of recent material.

Cast members of Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris,
Arkansas Repertory Theatre, January 2014
(photo/John David Pittman).
"It's a great thing," says Suilebhan in regard to the lack of older work. "New plays are the lifeblood and future of our art form. Classics have a place, of course, but not (I believe) at the center of what we do...My heart -- and, I believe, the future of the American theater -- is with new work."

Writing an enduring work for the theater is notoriously difficult. Over the past two centuries the English language has produced many great novelists and poets but only a handful of great playwrights. Will any plays on the current most produced list still be produced thirty, fifty, or one-hundred years from now?

"Of the plays I've seen on the list, about the only ones I could imagine being performed far into the future are The Whipping Man and Clybourne Park," says Torrence.

The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez is a three character drama about a Jewish officer in the Confederate army returning to his family home at the end of the war to find it ruined and uninhabited except for two former slaves. Bruce Norris' satire Clybourne Park, a sort of sequel to Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, looks at race relations through the mirror of housing and urban gentrification issues. 

The Mountaintop by Katori Hall, Capital
Repertory Theatre, Albany, NY, January 2014.
"Maybe The Mountaintop?" suggests Suilebhan as a contemporary play that might have staying power. "But I'm not big on prognostication. I'm also not big on revivals."

The Mountaintop by Katori Hall presents a tense Martin Luther King, Jr. interacting with a talkative motel maid on what turns about to be his last evening alive. Like Venus in Fur, The Mountaintop is a two character piece that runs for an intermission-less hour and a half.

In his review of the 2011 Broadway staging of The Mountaintop -- a highly touted production starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett -- Ben Brantley of the New York Times said "it’s hard not to feel that The Mountaintop might have worked better in a smaller, lower-profile production. Its charms are those of an ingenious sketch. Mounting it on this scale turns out to be a bit like spinning gossamer into Dacron."

This leads to the familiar question -- Is the creativity of the contemporary theater hindered by having to keep the cast list short due to economic concerns?

"To some extent, yes, though perhaps I should say 'possibly.' I'd love to see data, if it exists, to support this oft-cited claim," says Suilebhan.

Erika LaVonn and James T. Alfred in The Mountaintop,
Penumbra Theatre Company,  Guthrie Theater,
Minneapolis, March 2014.
"Actors don't grow on trees, right?" says Torrence, adding that "there are still a lot of [good] plays that only require a few players."

Theaters around the United States produce many of the same plays but do the tastes and habits of American regional theater audiences vary from city to city?

"That's not an easy question to answer," says Suilebhan. "Audiences in DC have been fed a steady diet of Shakespeare and classics and 'well-made plays' for a generation or two. But the last decade in particular has seen the emergence of a robust new play sector in the city, so theatergoers are learning to value a different kind of theatrical experience. Still: this is predominantly a politically liberal but aesthetically conservative place in which to make theater."

"I think St. Louisans in general may not be as spontaneous when they're planning their activities, and that certainly extends to the theater they attend," says Torrence. "A lot of the smaller regional companies are sadly losing audiences to bigger, more well known venues like the Fox, the Muny and Stages. I think the theater in this town is its best kept secret."

Most Produced Plays in the United States, 2013-2014 season*

Venus in Fur by David Ives (22)
Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris (16)
Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire (14)
Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz (13)
The Mountaintop by Katori Hall (13)
4000 Miles by Amy Herzog (12)
Tribes by Nina Raine (12)
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang (11)
The Cat in the Hat adapted by Katie Mitchell from Dr. Seuss (8)
Detroit by Lisa D'Amour (7)
God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza (7)
Red by John Logan (7)
The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez (7)
Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegria Hudes (7)

*List omits works by Shakespeare and holiday-themed productions

Here's more information --

"TCR Spotlight on Theater: Most Produced Plays in America, 2012-2013." The Committee Room, 10 April 2013.

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