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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

While Brit writers ascend, there are few serious American plays

Steven Boyer and Sarah Stiles in

Steven Boyer and Sarah Stiles in "Hand to God." Credit: Joan Marcus

The funny marketing of "Hand to God" includes an odd subtitle that stresses this is "A New American Play." In a reasonable world, such a distinction would seem ridiculous for this irreverent little spoof. What's the big deal?

What indeed? You see, the observation is disturbingly relevant when it comes to the paucity of serious new plays by Americans -- especially in this Brit-driven season. And the disparities are not just in the number of English plays. There is also is a shocking difference between the current old-fashioned American comedies and the stylistic innovations that producers -- and mass audiences -- are allowing into commercial theater.

Look at the challenging London imports doing healthy business this season. The most unexpected hit is "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," which opened last October. Who could have imagined that a high-tech spectacle that re-creates the disassociated world of a 15-year-old autistic boy would still be running and be considered a Tony favorite -- and all without a single famous name in the cast?

At least Nick Payne's "Constellations," daringly comprised of dozens of short scenes repeated with different emotions, had the wattage of Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson to bring unsuspecting fans into this unpredictable romance between a beekeeper and a quantum cosmologist. And bring them, it did.

Most likely, Jez Butterworth's defiantly inconclusive "The River" would never have even been on Broadway if Hugh Jackman had not chosen to play the lure in this mystical play about a fly-fisher of wild sea trout. This one kept theatergoers arguing about its meaning all the way home, but at least they came.

It's no shock that Helen Mirren -- in anything, but especially as Queen Elizabeth -- would bring in the audience. Still, Peter Morgan's "The Audience" covers decades of inside-baseball English history involving imagined conversations between her and her prime ministers. At the same time, we have "Wolf Hall: Parts 1 & 2," a strenuous six-hour historical pageant about intrigue in the court of Henry VIII. It has no stars, unless you count the Royal Shakespeare Company as its own star.

And then there is "King Charles III," due this fall, which fantasizes the ascension of the Prince of Wales to the throne -- in blank verse.

So now we have to ask. Are British playwrights really more structurally edgy, politically inquisitive and ambitious than our own? If not, could a theatergoer this season prove otherwise?

The season, which officially ended with the Tony cutoff last Thursday, did have one serious new American play, Lisa D'Amour's post-Katrina "Airline Highway," which Manhattan Theatre Club imported from Chicago's Steppenwolf and opened last week at MTC's Broadway venue. Before this, the single new American drama was "Disgraced," Ayad Akhtar's 2013 Pulitzer winner. I had problems with the recasting of the Off-Broadway hit for Broadway, but, surely, this important work shouldn't have struggled so hard at the box office. "Disgraced" closed March 1.

Aside from those two and the attenuated sketch comedy of "Hand to God," we have had Terrence McNally's nasty-funny but old-fashioned backstage comedy, "It's Only a Play," cleverly updated from when it ran off Off-Broadway in 1982 and Off-Broadway in 1986.

The remaining new American plays turned Broadway into a time-machine of decrepit throwbacks to a gag-driven comedy that defined Broadway before free sitcoms on TV made them redundant. For all the quirky allure of Larry David, "Fish in the Dark," his debut as a playwright, might have seemed fresh in the early '60s. The same goes for "Living on Love," Joe DiPietro's old-style boulevard comedy, destined to be remembered only for the Broadway debut of opera star Renée Fleming. As a theater commodity, foolishness, even well-done foolishness, has obvious limits.

I have nothing but hope for "An Act of God" (not to be confused with "Hand to God)," which begins previews next month starring the ever-appealing Jim Parsons as the Almighty. The comedy is by David Javerbaum, a former writer for "The Daily Show."

Where are the writers whose work has made Off-Broadway and nonprofit resident theaters worth attending for the past four decades?

Primarily they are at Manhattan Theatre Club, a venerable nonprofit that also now has its own Broadway venue, the Friedman Theatre, where "Airline Highway" just opened and "Constellations" sold out its limited run last winter.

And now that the nonprofit Second Stage Theatre finally sealed the deal to buy its own Broadway house, the Helen Hayes, artistic director Carole Rothman intends to fill it exclusively with plays by living American writers. But the project won't begin until the 2017-18 season.

As Lynne Meadow, artistic director of MTC, knows well, "commercial producers have a different agenda from the nonprofits. They're trying to pay back their investors with whatever the traffic will allow. We're just looking to make enough to produce the next playwrights."

Thanks to Meadow and company, such important theater writers as Richard Greenberg, John Patrick Shanley and Donald Margulies have been on Broadway-and, not incidentally, been Tony-eligible -- instead of being sheltered in what must seem sometimes like an Off-Broadway ghetto.

Even MTC, with the cushion of a 40 percent subscriber base, has to factor in the frequent need for stars. "With a star, everybody can relax a little more," she told me in a recent interview. "Productions cost a lot, and we have to be able to put enough people into the seats."

Asked why English writers have so little problem filling seats right now, she stressed a reality that isn't immediately obvious from the phenomenon. "Almost all those plays were created in the English equivalent of our subsidized theater," she said firmly.

Still, there is no denying that British plays tend to be more political and to push stylistic boundaries. The dominant style of American plays is straightforward naturalism.

"Audiences here have an appetite for beginnings and endings," she said. "Broadway never has been a place for major experimentation." Unless, apparently, it has an English accent.


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