London's West End steps up efforts to attract audiences

With ticket buyers reluctant to take a chance on a new play, producers are trying to keep theater affordable and fresh

ALARM bells are ringing in the West End right now. Despite London theater making such a strong impact on Broadway in recent times, culminating in an impressive clutch of this year's Tony Awards going to British talent, impresarios here are worried. The climate for mounting an untried nonmusical show in the West End is getting harsher by the day. As in New York, theatergoers in this town are increasingly reluctant to pay high prices for a newly minted play. ``The situation has never been as bad as this,'' observes a well-placed theater executive.

Recently, 16 London impresarios came together to launch a consortium, the West End Producers' Alliance (WEPA), which aims to bring high-quality original plays - at modest prices - to the main London stages. Even more significantly, while the English are making themselves felt on Broadway, American talent has moved to the fore in the West End's fight, starting with expatriate New York husband-and-wife producers Frank and Woji Gero.

The WEPA has also looked to the United States to kick off its venture. 900 Oneonta, by Louisiana-born, Hollywood TV and film writer David Beaird, just received its world premiere at the Old Vic Theatre and is exciting and delighting the usually subdued London critics (see accompanying story). The play is a fearless critique of US materialism.

A present-day, deeply dysfunctional family, who lives in a moldering but once grand Southern mansion, serves as a metaphor for Beaird's theme. Everyone in this dissolute, extended clan is sponging off their miserable, monumentally unlovable, oil-rich granddad, whose death is imminent. With him may well go their meal ticket. While most of the clan are too caught up in self-absorption to appreciate this fiscal reality, one grandson - memorably played by American actor Jon Cryer - is positively fixated on the problem.

In ``900 Oneonta'' (the mansion's address) everything is taken to the limit: alcoholism, drug addiction, strong language, politically incorrect racism, abortion, incest, naked greed, murder. Yet it is masterfully crafted into one of the funniest comedies to hit the West End for a long time. The verve (and nerve) of the production is its undeniable strength: The more hard-hitting the message becomes, the more the show makes you laugh.

The WEPA's other current venture displays yet more American talent, in the form of another world premiere: David Mamet's newest work, Cryptogram, at the Ambassadors Theatre. This much-anticipated play concerns a 10-year-old boy awaiting his father's return home late one night. But Dad, we learn, is not coming back. He has just left his wife. Not much else happens, save some talk of betrayal and innuendo of people failing to listen to each another.

Critics here have been deferential to ``Cryptogram,'' referring to the play's ``minimalism'' and terming it ``oblique and elusive.'' But a bad play is a bad play. ``Crytogram'' is a self-indulgent, undisciplined, black hole of a drama, the kind that is to blame for killing off enthusiasm for theatergoing. The WEPA was on the right track when it backed Beaird, a relative unknown, purely on the basis of his writing. The consortium will only undermine its noble ambitions if it falls into the trap of being bamboozled by illustrious reputations.

Being swayed by reputations can, of course, work both ways. It has been an uphill struggle against the majority of London critics for Barry Manilow, with his first foray into musical theater as creator of the lavish ``Copacabana'' at the Prince of Wales Theatre. Manilow is one of those at whom the critical elite here tend to turn up a snobbish nose. And now that he's breaking into musicals, using a storyline based on his 1970s pop hit (he changes the end, however, to a happy one for the previously doomed Tony and Lola), was guaranteed to earn disdainful notices.

Actually, ``Copacabana'' simply sets out to entertain in a broad, brash, ostrich-feathered kind of way. Stephen Sondheim it isn't. Manilow uses impressive state-of-the-art staging to recreate a lushly fantastical 1940s New York nightclub. The tale of a young girl from Tulsa, Miss T-Bone Steak, who falls for the amiable, street-smart piano man, Tony, does have a high energy, eager-to-please appeal. Few critics have quibbled over the obvious talents of the show's two stars, Gary Wilmot and Nicola Dawn. For those theatergoers who don't ask much from a musical beyond the genre's traditional attributes, it's a good bet they will feel they got their money's worth.

Despite the fretting over the paucity of new home-grown plays, richness and variety still exist on London stages. The Royal National Theatre (RNT) is a breathtaking showcase of world drama.

In repertory, Rutherford and Son, an obscure, brooding play written in 1911 about pre-modern shifts in the English class system and the galvanizing effects of feminism, is a minor gem - plus a good chance to see Bob Peck, one of Britain's finest stage actors, in top form. The Seagull is a witty, profound, and haunting interpretation with superb performances all around, particularly from (also among Britain's finest) Dame Judi Dench and Edward Petherbridge. The RNT, in addition, has mounted a deliciously quirky, darkly funny revival of Jean Cocteau's Les Parents Terribles and a memorable, thought-provoking rendering of Arthur Miller's newest play, Broken Glass. Miller's message, that people often do not act boldly until it's too late, is making a strong impact on theatergoers.

Over at the Barbican, the London home of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), the very same director of Miller's play at the RNT has scored another coup, with the production, this time in the RSC's repertoire, of The Merchant of Venice. Ingeniously (and, for some, controversially) updated to the high-flying, high- finance stockbroking world of the 1980s, this is one of the best, most entertaining Shakespeare renderings for a long time. David Calder, as Shylock, is a model of moving and intelligent acting. Similar praise can also be accorded to a revival of Ibsen's Ghosts, another of the RSC's hot tickets of the season.

Whatever the concerns of London impresarios, the West End remains, for depth of talent and virtuosity in staging, a veritable treasure trove.

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