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Unlikely British Invasion of the New York Theater Scene

That Face, a play by a 23 year-old British playwright (who wrote it when she was even younger), just snagged a 2010 production at Manhattan Theater Company, in an announcement where the New York Times ArtsBeat blog trumpeted her as a “wunderkind.” Elizabeth Marvel, who was in the stellar MTC revival of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, is to star. British critics compared her to Tennessee Williams. Should you be excited? Is this going to be next year’s hot ticket? And is there a British Invasion of New York’s theater scene on the rise? An insider’s take, below the cut.

No. Everyone needs to calm down.

MTC’s a non-profit theater. They can afford to take risks commercial producers can’t because they’re not in the first-thing’s-first business of making money. They have corporate and private endowments. They don’t have to worry about pulling in success so much as keeping subscribers. They can use this to compliment their “diversity” in choices or whatever. Commercial producers keep their eyes on the prize: cash. So they’d never take a risk putting a first-time, 23 year-old British playwright on Broadway. It’d never happen. MTC didn’t take that risk either, by putting her on one of their CityCenter stages. If anything, this just serves as great evidence of American Broadway producers’ skepticism of three things:

1. Wunderkinds.
2. British theater.
3. Hyperbole.

A bunch of commercial producers in town looked at the show and didn’t like it. Sure, there was the whole “wunderkind” press angle, which guys like [Dave Itzkoff] are already biting into, but the play needed work in the state it was in, which is why the biggest production it received in the UK was at Duke of York’s, a 640 max capacity venue. MTC Stage 1, where it’s going to be mounted? 299 seats. This isn’t a huge chance they’re taking; but they are testing it out for either commercial partnership and/or their larger stages. And dollars to donuts, this thing’s getting some serious director re-working for American audiences.

Billy Elliot opened in London in March, 2005. One critic called it “the greatest British musical I have ever seen.” American commercial producers still scoffed. It didn’t open in a Broadway theater until November, 2008, more than 3 1/2 years later.

August: Osage County opened in December, 2007. It was in a British theater by November, 2008. Less than a year later.

Maybe that’s not a fair comparison because plays are easier to mount, and Wicked also opened in Chicago and did a National Tour before it opened in London (around three years later), but Wicked didn’t win the Tony for Best Musical, while Billy Elliot won the British equivalent. And nobody called Wicked “THE BEST THING EVER, FOREVER,” because it’s not.

American producers are way more skeptical of British theater and British producers are of American shows. British shows need serious re-working by Americans to work here. Furthermore, producers want plays to have long lives, which — with tours, with regional theater licensing audiences, and with tourists — British plays (unless they’re grand-slam hits) don’t have.

Also, New Yorkers don’t buy into wunderkind hype with theater. It just doesn’t happen.

thatface3that face 2

Images from the first staging of That Face, at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. Directed by Andy Arnold.

British theater simply doesn’t equate to commercial success in America as a rule. There are definitely great exceptions — God of Carnage, History Boys, etc. — but they do better critically than they do commercially, by and large. British theater critics are even more prone to hyperbole than American ones so there’s really no telling how Americans are going to react. People thought Journey’s End was going to stomp through Broadway, it ended up closing in 2008…on the day it won the Tony. Big “ouch” from everyone on Broadway. Then again, between Billy Elliot rocking box office wraps and War Horsea big, technical production with giant puppet-horses — on its way over, British theater’s making some serious play for American dollars in US houses. The good money’s on the buck — or the pound — stopping with the boy ballerinos.

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