NEW YORK — With a running time of three hours and a barrage of alcohol-fueled emotional cruelty, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” would seem like an anomaly on today’s frilly Broadway.
Broadway this season has gone, well, a little classics-crazy. A version of Edward Albee’s “Woolf’ imported from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre is just one of five intense, iconic works playing this fall. The crop also includes Edmond Rostand’s late-19th century touchstone “Cyrano de Bergerac,” David Mamet’s examination of modern male machismo “Glengarry Glen Ross,” Henrik Ibsen’s social treatise “An Enemy of the People” and Ruth and August Goetz’s “The Heiress,” derived from Henry James’ novelistic staple “Washington Square.”
But as the New York theater world embraces these seminal plays, is it a sign that producers think audiences crave serious plays or the latest evidence that the producers are running scared?
“There’s a glass-half-full and a glass-half-empty way of seeing all this,” said Lynne Meadow, the longtime artistic director of the not-for-profit Manhattan Theatre Club, staging “An Enemy of the People.”
“The half-empty way is that it’s a business and people need to make money, which you do with known work and bankable stars,” Meadow said. “The half-full way is that this is vital work that’s being reinvented with new actors.” (Certainly the shows don’t skimp on the recognizable stars — “The Heiress” features Hollywood actress-of-the-moment Jessica Chastain, while one of the most anticipated performances of the season is Al Pacino’s in “Glengarry.”)
Revivals of classics are nearly as old as Broadway itself, especially when it comes to musicals. But in recent years they have, as a rule, increased even among straight plays. In 2002, for instance, there were five time-tested classics revived the entire year, never mind in a few months. (More revivals of classics are coming this winter and spring, including a version of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with Scarlett Johansson.)
The cycles are also shortening. In 2000, Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man” was revived for the first time in 40 years. It took barely a decade for the play to come back again.
“Virginia Woolf” and “Glengarry” were gone for even less time — they were staged on Broadway (and nominated by the Tonys for best revival of a play) just seven years ago.
Why this is happening — and whether it’s a good thing — is a subject of a theater-world back-and-forth worthy of Albee’s George and Martha.
Some involved say the decision to mount these shows reflects a deep cultural appetite.
“I think there’s a real interest right now in embracing aspects of our past,” said Paula Wagner, the veteran Hollywood producer who is producing “The Heiress.” “The film world is making ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Anna Karenina,’ and now you’re seeing all these classics on Broadway. There are windows of time when we do that as a society, and we’re in one of them now.”
Others see less complicated reasons.
“I think it’s economics, pure and simple,” said Tracy Letts, the actor and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who is making his Broadway debut as an actor in “Woolf.” “I mean, Al Pacino in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross,’ what the hell else do you need for a hit?”
There are clear financial advantages to reviving dramas. They’re usually cheaper than musicals, since they don’t tend to require elaborate staging, choreographers, composers or large casts. And they come with a certain built-in marketing advantage, since even casual theatergoers will know their name and bona fides.
“These dramatic revivals, even if they’re very serious works, really are the lowest risk,” said Todd Haimes, artistic director at the not-for-profit Roundabout Theatre Company, which is staging “Cyrano.”
Of course, even if people know these plays, there’s the pesky issue of persuading them to buy tickets. No matter how many stars these shows contain, American audiences haven’t shown a consistent desire to spend a night with the human complications often dealt with in dramatic classics.
The Andrew Garfield-Philip Seymour Hoffman revival of “Death of a Salesman,” for instance, may have been one of Broadway’s biggest hits over the past few years, but other name-driven productions, such as the Kim Cattrall-toplined revival of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” and the Bill Pullman-Julia Stiles edition of Mamet’s “Oleanna,” to name two examples, were disappointments.
Meanwhile, some fear that all these familiar works are crowding out new voices.
This fall brings only three new dramas to Broadway — Mamet’s prison piece “The Anarchist,” Craig Wright’s spiritually themed marital drama “Grace” and Theresa Rebeck’s financial-world tale “Dead Accounts.” By contrast, fall 2011 saw the opening of five major new dramas, including eventual Tony nominees “Venus in Fur,” “Stick Fly” and “Other Desert Cities” along with Katori Hall’s Martin Luther King Jr. play “The Mountaintop” and Rebeck’s “Seminar.”
“There needs to be a healthy balance between new work and our dramatic heritage,” said Broadway producer Jeffrey Richards, who is trying both this season, producing “The Anarchist” as well as “Virginia Woolf” and “Glengarry.” “You can’t have one without the other.”
Still, even if a work is old, Richards noted, it can say something new when staged in a different era.
“With ‘Glengarry’ we wanted to bring it back because not only is it one of the best plays of the second half of the 20th century, but given what happened with real estate in the last few years in this country we thought it was especially timely,” he said. (The production is also offering a 2012 update by having Pacino tackle the role of office elder Shelley Levene; the actor played the ruthless Ricky Roma in the big-screen version 20 years ago.)
And there are ways to tweak the work so that it feels fresh.
Doug Hughes, the veteran theater director who is directing the new version of “Enemy” (adapted by the British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz), said he rejected his initial impulse to update Ibsen’s 1880s work to the 1930s. But he found other ways to modernize it.
“They still wear top hats and carry canes, but we cleared out a lot of the structures of plays from that time, and I think also found a way to make it feel that people in the play had the freedoms that people would have today.” He added, “The fact that it was revered in 1882 is great, but it won’t cut any ice with an audience today.”
Characters can shift too — the “Woolf” revival, for instance, gives George a bit more equal footing with wife-adversary Martha, according to Letts.
The straight-faced nature of these plays is doubtless a swing away from just a few years ago, when edgy fare such as “The Book of Mormon,” “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “The Mother ... With the Hat” all opened within a short span.
That may disappoint those looking for something younger and hipper. But those behind these plays say they can still be fresh.
“There’s something exhilarating about taking a familiar work and putting it in the hands of new talent like Jessica Chastain,” Wagner said. “Some would say it’s familiar, but I think it can transcend what we know.”