Regional Theater Finds a Winner : 'Nothing Sacred' Is the Play of the Year Although It's Never Received the Broadway Stamp of Approval

No time to see "Nothing Sacred" at the Mark Taper Forum before it closes next Sunday?

Not to worry. You can catch it in Vancouver in November, Chicago in December, Hartford in January, Seattle in February, San Francisco in March and/or Washington in April.

Just don't count on seeing Tom Hulce, who stars at the Taper. George F. Walker's play isn't on its way to or from New York on tour. Each resident theater presenting "Nothing Sacred" is doing its own casting and lining up its own director.

"Nothing Sacred" was inspired by Russian Ivan Turgenev's 19th-Century novel, "Fathers and Sons." Whether a great show or not--Los Angeles reviews were mixed--it hardly offers the popular appeal and guaranteed box office of shows such as "Romeo and Juliet," "Guys and Dolls" and "The Odd Couple."

So why is this "satiric comedy of manners" the hot play of the resident theater season? "I've been asking that question too," responds its author by phone from Toronto. "At one point, I figured (the artistic directors) were roughly all my age (41) and guessed about psychic wavelengths between people of the same generation."

It also happens to be "a terrific play," says Gordon Davidson, artistic director/producer for the Music Center's Mark Taper Forum, the play's first U.S. producer: "You don't get to read a play as juicy and special as this very often."

"Nothing Sacred" also profits from a changed theatrical topography. The decline of Broadway, particularly as a venue for serious plays, obviously has an impact on resident theaters, which used to rely on booking last season's Broadway hit. And now in their third decade, many of the nation's resident theaters have enough confidence in both their judgment and audiences to risk money and reputation on relatively untried shows like "Nothing Sacred."

"It's no surprise to me that ("Nothing Sacred") will be at so many theaters," says Douglas Wager, associate producing director at Washington's Arena Stage. "The regional theater movement has come into its own artistically. It's nice if New York happens, but if it doesn't, an artist can still have a vital and productive life and receive national recognition and support."

Marketing Campaign

"Nothing Sacred" is Walker's 18th play. The playwright accumulated several Canadian theatrical awards over the years, but despite a few U. S. productions of his plays, he has remained largely a playwright whom U.S. producers read but rarely produced.

Seattle Repertory Company artistic director Daniel Sullivan, for instance, says he had found Walker's "other work interesting but rather eccentric. I read this particular adaptation with some trepidation."

The fact that Sullivan even saw the script is a testimonial to some very aggressive marketing--what the Taper's Davidson calls "an example of a smart agent and a playwright who says 'I want my work done.' "

The smart agent is Ralph Zimmerman of Toronto's Great North Artists Management Inc. "Nothing Sacred" was still in its four-week run at Toronto's Centrestage Company last January when Zimmerman began mailings to artistic directors and dramaturges throughout North America.

More than 20 U.S. theaters received copies of Walker's script--which the playwright says he wrote in 11 days and only minimally revised--plus the more favorable Toronto reviews ("Simply one of the best things to be seen on stage in this city in years"--Globe and Mail).

A mini-campaign followed "Nothing Sacred's" nominations for nine Dora Mavor Moore theater awards, and Zimmerman went back to the postage meter in June when the production won for best play.

"George has been a recognized Canadian playwright for the last 15 years, and we've established ongoing relationships with theaters and directors, but (until now) there hadn't been the right play," says Zimmerman. He adds that the play premiered in January--a time when regional theaters start setting their next seasons--and that it creates a contemporary feel for 19th-Century Russia in a time of glasnost. "And to give full credit, it is just a beautifully written piece."

It also helped that a prominent director such as Robert Woodruff personally shopped the play around to, among others, San Francisco's ACT. Not only did ACT artistic director Edward Hastings like the play but, says Hastings, his colleagues "all flipped for it."

Woodruff, who will direct the play at ACT, also took the script to both the Taper and the La Jolla Playhouse. (La Jolla had considered the play not for this season--which was already largely in place--but for next, says associate director and dramaturge Robert Blacker. The fact that both La Jolla and the Taper draw on Los Angeles area audiences "eliminated it from our consideration.")

Zimmerman was personally pleased about the Taper doing the play, he confides, because he felt the Taper's former dramaturge, Russell Vandenbroucke, didn't like Walker's writing. And not only is the Taper doing it, Zimmerman says with a chuckle, but Vandenbroucke is now artistic director of the Northlight Theatre in Evanston, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, and he's doing the play too.

From Vandenbroucke to Davidson, each theater executive mentions being drawn to not just the play's language--which almost everyone comments on--but something more personal. The Arena's Wager says that his own graduate thesis production was a dramatic adaptation of a Turgenev novella, for instance, while Mark Lamos at Hartford Stage Company mentioned he's just back from directing in the Soviet Union.

"When a good play comes along, a number of nonprofit theaters tend to cluster around it and get excited about it," says Lamos. "It's a healthy way for a play to be given birth and have a healthy life without commercial pressure."

Change began as far back as 1977, when the Hartford, Taper and Arena cooperated in presenting "A History of the American Film." Christopher Durang's satire about Hollywood's impact was workshopped at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Conn., the prior year, premiered at Hartford in early March, then was followed by productions here and in Washington.

More recently, Eric Overmyer's play "On the Verge or The Geography of Yearning" topped a dozen resident productions before landing in New York. And Mark Harelik's first play, "The Immigrant," which opened the Taper's 20th season in 1986, is expected to stack up about 30 regional productions by the end of this season without ever playing New York. (See story at right.)

'Plays of the Year'

But have things really changed in resident theater? While more and more American theaters are producing new plays, they also continue to produce crowd-pleasers like William Shakespeare and Neil Simon, in addition to the proven successes with very few characters, very few sets and maybe a Tony or two.

An informal study of several years of regional theater schedules indicates plenty of Arthur Miller and David Mamet, as well as such other "stars" such as Athol Fugard, Lanford Wilson, August Wilson and Sam Shepard. Vandenbroucke refers to "plays of the year," saying last year it was Janusz Glowacki's "Hunting Cockroaches" and then reciting a string of earlier hits including Marsha Norman's " 'night, Mother" and Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart." "In general, artistic directors of regional theaters only like to do what has been successful on Broadway or Off-Broadway," says Kip Gould, founder of Broadway Play Publishing, which specializes in leasing plays begun in regional theater. "If they do a play that hasn't had the imprimatur from the New York critics, then they have no line of defense if their audiences don't like it."

Consider nearly every resident theater's heated pursuit this year of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," Christopher Hampton's new play, based on Choderlos de Laclos' 18th-Century novel. Almost every artistic director queried for this article talks of pleading or begging for the show--their words--since the first Royal Shakespeare Company production opened in England in 1985, but no rights were available once the RSC opted for Broadway.

James Nederlander, who acquired first-class rights to the show after its Broadway run, held on to the rights, contemplating a national tour and possible Broadway return. But last summer he began selectively releasing them.

One of the people eyeing the show early on was Ahmanson artistic director Robert Fryer, who will open "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," here later this month. Nederlander may take the Ahmanson production to Broadway, Fryer confirms, depending on both the show's reception here and the availability of such stars as Frank Langella and Lynn Redgrave.

"The fact a lot of us are doing 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses" is not surprising," says Seattle Rep's Sullivan, "but 'Nothing Sacred' is a play we thought we had discovered. You'd expect to have one regional theater do it, have it catch on, then see another. It's a testament to healthy literary departments which are always on the prowl."

Sharing the Wealth

Nobody thinks a single play in six theaters proves a trend, but the Arena's Wager, for one, expects more "sharing of the wealth, because the way the American resident theater movement is going is toward developing a national constituency. And the theaters are becoming less possessive about origination and presentation of new work. There's little enough of it out there of extremely high quality."

The same holds true for playwrights, adds Wager. "The marketplace is too rich. There are so many theaters that could do the work that it would be silly for a writer to restrict his or her options and gamble on a single production. Now George Walker will have many productions in one year and not gamble on any one of them being definitive."

Success is already breeding new competition, in fact. Seattle Rep's Sullivan is searching for an actor to play Bazarov, the leading character of "Nothing Sacred," but has already lost his first choice.

Sullivan says he gave the script to Tom Hulce, at the Rep earlier this year doing Richard Greenberg's "Eastern Standard," and Hulce "brought the script back to me (with) a note saying 'it was a great script and a great role.' Then he took the job in L.A."

What next for "Nothing Sacred"? Reviews of the Taper production--or at least some of the more favorable ones--are already in the mail to producers. Among them is the one in Time magazine, which praised the play (sort of), saying the Taper production "demonstrates enduring political vibrancy on the stages of La-La Land."

Agent Zimmerman has already turned down a possible Off-Broadway venue and one New York company--"their proposed productions weren't appropriate," he says--and both Off-Broadway and Broadway rights were still available at press time. So what would happen, Zimmerman was asked, if all six U.S. theaters decide they want to take it to New York? "That would be excellent," he responds. "We'd be very happy."

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