In the old days — pre-1980 — a new show would be optioned by a producer who would book two or three out of town engagements so that the script in question could be worked on in front of real audiences.
Theatergoers in Boston and Philadelphia and New Haven knew they were seeing works in progress and would judge what they saw accordingly. While many major changes might be made before the play or musical opened on Broadway, out of town audiences loved to see fresh material, often with major stars. As a kid in Philly, I was lucky enough to see future hits that would only need a little fine tuning (“Mame”) and at least one legendary flop that would close in previews in New York (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”). Because of the pressure cooker atmosphere the flops could be almost as exciting as some of the hits.
The looming Broadway deadline faced by show people in try-out runs could produce astounding results. A new opening number turned “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” from a flop to a hit while it was trying out in Washington, D.C. Under pressure to write a key song for a leading lady with severe vocal limitations, Stephen Sondheim wrote “Send in the Clowns” in a Boston hotel room for Glynis Johns to perform in “A Little Night Music.”
Rising production costs and more elaborate stagecraft made it tougher to tour a show before opening in New York, so the talent and producers came up with the current cycle of readings and workshops that slowly pave the way for the first, full professional production.
The plus in this set-up is that the creative people behind a show have more time to work out of a public spotlight, and they can have long breaks in between workshops to mull over changes in the material. The minus is that a play can be workshopped to death in front of audiences that are not necessarily representative of the paying customers who will come later. It’s a group of friends, family, potential producers, insiders who might spread positive buzz, etc.
Over the weekend I was impressed to see positive results of the new system at a downtown Manhattan workshop production of “Room at the End of the Hall” by Greenwich playwright Rocco Natale. Because I did a feature story on the project more than a year ago, I was able to attend a bare-bones reading in a midtown studio space last winter — with the two actors, Sean Hudock and Claybourne Elder, reading scripts from music stands — before I attended the much more staged workshop version of the play Saturday night in a small space at the New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village.
It’s a very strong piece of theater about two brothers who have returned to their grandfather’s Cape Cod beach house to claim the property after his death, to scatter his ashes, and to find a diary that might hold clues to a family tragedy. Natale packs a lot into a little more than 75 minutes, but he has the intelligence and talent to make each moment count without ever leaving us feeling overwhelmed by exposition. The tortured family history comes out believably — and with frequent moments of humor — as we head toward a climax that seems right without feeling pat.
The virtues of the new system of development could be seen Saturday night in a tighter and more emotional script, and performances that were richer due to whatever thinking Hudock and Elder had done about their roles over the past year, and the life experiences that burnished their acting gifts. The two actors still referred to scripts occasionally, but the addition of a minimal but suggestive set and lighting gave the performance the feeling of a dress rehearsal for a full production, rather than a workshop.
Natale has been fortunate to have a savvy producer and powerful leading man in his longtime Greenwich friend Hudock, but together they are building what promises to be a memorable play. Now, I just hope they find the support to take their work to the next level of a full-scale professional staging.