As a producer, Richards rewards commitment with an unquestioning loyalty. Elizabeth Ashley, currently starring in Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," recalls a test case that came up early in Richards' producing career. "We were all grousing about the set, which looked like a condo in Alta Vista," says Ashley, who is a close friend to Richards. "But he told us, 'This is a wonderful designer, this is his concept and I won't interfere with that.' End of discussion."
Richards' loyalty to the artists with whom he works may be why he eschews the comparison to Merrick in favor of the producing team of Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder. This adventurous producing team was an early and sustained backer of Edward Albee, producing not only his early successes such as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" but also sticking with him when he precipitously fell out of fashion.
"I think when you have an enormous success with a writer, you have a responsibility to be there for them," Richards says. Nonetheless, a producer's commitment can extend only so far. After all, such a stellar talent as Stephen Sondheim is hard-pressed to receive a commercial production these days after a series of flops, a situation that befell Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and William Inge in their later years. "All I can tell you is that the writers I support are young in their careers, and they have a lot of good plays left in them," Richards says.
In addition to Mamet's "Race," Richards is presenting Letts' new play, "Superior Donuts," another transfer from Chicago opening on Broadway in October. These may be no-brainers as both writers are on something of roll. The more difficult propositions have been the transfer of LaBute's "Reasons to Be Pretty" from off-Broadway and the revival of "Desire Under the Elms," which has since closed at a total or near loss of its investment.
But Richards simply says he's more than willing to take risks. That has also been true of such commercially unpromising projects as the Broadway premiere of August Wilson's "Radio Golf," which quickly folded on Broadway.
"I've heard him say any number of times, 'This is going to be a hard sell, but we're going to sell it as hard as we can,' " Ashley says. "I think those plays are actually more thrilling for him than the successes."
As far as this season is concerned, Richards will no doubt be batting at least .500 with "You're Welcome, America" and "Speed-the-Plow" having recouped, "Hair" likely to, and even "Blithe Spirit" standing a good chance. He is already looking toward the 2010-2011 season with a revival of Ketti Frings' Pulitzer Prize-winning stage adaptation of Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward, Angel," to be directed by Daniel Sullivan and updated by David Auburn ("Proof"). "I just picked it up one night and was totally captivated by it -- it has death, first love, a mother more grasping and greedy than Madam Rose in 'Gypsy,' the disintegration of a marriage, and a young man who must escape to become the artist he is destined to become."
Asked if he's personally drawn to plays about dysfunctional families ("August," "Homecoming," "Desire Under the Elms") because of something in his past, he laughs ruefully. "I never look at myself that closely," he says. "Besides, I'm not an artist."