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

October 16, 1988|BARBARA ISENBERG

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.")

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