'Vanya and Sonia ...' latest to make jump from Broadway to Pittsburgh

| Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

City Theatre Company opens its 2013-14 season with a blazingly fast restaging of a recent Broadway hit.

Just seven weeks after closing on Broadway, Christopher Durang's “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” began previews at City Theatre in one of the first regional theater productions of the comedy.

Durang's work, which won the 2013 Tony Award for best play, takes characters, situations and references from several of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's plays — most notably “Uncle Vanya” — and moves them from tsarist Russia to a country home in present-day Bucks County in Eastern Pennsylvania.

There's no need to brush up on your Chekhov, says City Theatre artistic director Tracy Brigden.

“It's not a parody of Chekhov,” she says. “He has taken (elements) from a lot of (Chekhov's) plays and put them in a blender. There is a little level of extra humor for people who know Chekhov. But it's not necessary.”

What it is, is laugh-out-loud funny, says City Theatre managing director Mark R. Power, who calls the play, “exactly the sort of show that showcases us best.”

It's not unusual for local theater companies to include recent hit Broadway plays and award winners on their season schedule. City Theatre did it last season when it staged “Seminar” seven months after its Broadway closing. So did Pittsburgh Public Theater when it included 2012 best-play Tony winner “Clybourne Park” and 2012 best-play Tony nominee “Other Desert Cities” on its 2012-13 schedule.

But “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” was particularly speedy, assisted in part by the fact that City Theatre secured the performance rights even before it was nominated for a Tony.

So, how does a regional theater snag the rights to hot Broadway properties? It's a combination of timing, economics and relationships, say local producers and artistic directors.

When a Broadway or off-Broadway play has buzz and good reviews, regional theater producers may be eager put it on their upcoming season. But that same buzz and acclaim mean playwrights and their agents are reluctant to sell production rights to regional theaters until they know when the New York production will close. Even then, they may withhold the rights in the hope that there may be a national tour.

If the rights don't become available until after contracts are signed for the upcoming regional theater season and subscription sales are under way, it may be 12 to 18 months or more before a slot becomes available in the next season.

“ ‘Red' had a limited engagement on Broadway. It was a huge hit with amazing buzz, a short run and awards,” says Pittsburgh Public Theater producing artistic director Ted Pappas. A limited run made it especially attractive because lots of Pittsburgh theatergoers had heard of it, but didn't get to New York to see it before it closed.

But, by the time it closed in June 2010, the 2010-11 Pittsburgh Public Theater season had already been announced, and Pittsburgh audiences had to wait until the company did it in November 2011.

Withholding rights in hopes of a national tour can backfire, though, says Quantum Theatre artistic director Karla Boos.

For years, she tried to get production rights to do “Mouth to Mouth,” which she saw in London in 2001. But the rights-holders kept holding onto dreams of a New York City premiere.

“They held out until it was less current, and, eventually (2009), I got to do the play and it felt like its time had passed,” she says.

City Theatre was more fortunate with the release of rights to “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” Because Brigden had long had a professional relationship with Durang, his latest work had been on her radar since its September 2012 beginnings at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J.

“I read it on the page and thought it was hysterical before it was a success. I picked it because I thought the audience would find it as funny as I do, and I picked it for (actresses) Sheila McKenna and Helena Ruoti,” Brigden says.

Early on, Power and Brigden let Durang's agent know they were interested in acquiring production rights.

“The timing of it was great because we were just getting ready to announce (the 2013-14 season),” says Power, who says the rights became available the first week in February. “We had the rights to it within a week.”

The fact that the show had transferred to Broadway for a short run with a pre-planned closing date allowed City Theatre to put it in the season-opener slot.

Economic reality also plays a part. A playwright's royalties and income are determined by the number of seats in a theater, the price of the tickets and the number of performances in a run. Those factors can decide when and which company will get production rights in a given city.

“The Public is the biggest producer of plays in the city. We can make more money for the writers,” Pappas says.

Regional theaters that have a good track record for turning out good plays are more likely to have agents look favorably on their requests for production rights, Pappas believes.

“They are confident we will take care of the baby,” Pappas says, adding that the Pittsburgh Public Theater is considered a good launching place for regional productions because other companies are watching to see how well a play transfers to regional theaters and its audiences. “They look to us to see if it works, if the audience accepts it,” he says.

If money were the only deciding factor, Quantum would not be able to compete with the Public, Boos says. But, a company's reputation and relationships between artists and theater companies often trump economics.

“I know agents of certain challenging, international playwrights who might wish for a more commercially sound premiere, but we got the play because they know it's going to be given good treatment,” Boos says.

As a company that commissions new works and shepherds them through development, City Theatre has earned a good reputation as a steady risk-taker, Power says.

Getting the rights to the next big hit also can begin with something as simple and personal as being in Manhattan and running into a playwright you know and asking them what they're working on, Brigden says.

It's also helpful to have worked with them before.

“I think Chris (Durang) trusts me as a director,” says Brigden, who in 2002 directed the world premiere of Durang's “Mrs. Bob Crotchet's Wild Christmas Binge” that City Theatre had commissioned. “I understand his humor particularly well. Sometimes, it's difficult (for a director) to read (Durang's play) on the page and realize how funny it is.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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