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Dramatists on the ascent.

Each season, the term "promising" is hung like a laurel around some young playwright's neck - a term that can be fraught with its own dangers. Nonetheless, they emerge year after year, these brave and talented souls hoping for the breakthrough that will propel them, if not to fame, at least out of the poverty and the miasma of grant applications.

As usual, most of the action this year is Off Broadway and in small nonprofit companies like the Drama Dept., the Tectonic Theatre Project Inc. and the New Group, all of which have had recent critical successes that have moved or are moving to commercial runs.

Broadway long ago abandoned its role of nurturing young playwrights, with the odd exception of transfers from London or such media-hyped regional successes as "Angels in America." Of the former, Yasmina Reza's "Art," translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, is a good example.

The London smash hit, directed by Matthew Warchus and which has actor Sean Connery as one of the producers, will transfer to Broadway this fall with a new cast in the roles created by Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott.

Another new name on Broadway will be Gip Hoppe, who will direct his satire "Jackie," about the life of the former first lady, which was a hit in Boston.

The good news is that an unusually sizable number of women playwrights will be represented in this season's lineup. The Vineyard has been especially supportive of late, having produced last year productions of Lisa Loomer's "The Waiting Room" and Paula Vogel's "How I Learned to Drive," a critical success that has transferred to the Century for a commercial run.

Later this year, the small Off Broadway theater plays host to Joan Ackermann's "The Batting Cage," starring Veanne Cox, which was one of the highlights of the 1996 Louisville Theatre Festival. The drama, about two sisters who square off when a third sibling dies, has been optioned by producers David Stone and Amy Nederlander Case - so look for a commercial run if the critics are kind and a theater opens up.

Lynn Nottage, whose "Crumbs From the Table of Joy" received respectful notices last season at Second Stage, is back with "Mud, River, Stone" in a production to be directed by actor Roger Rees at Playwrights Horizons. The drama, inspired by a real-life account of an African-American couple taken hostage while vacationing in southeast Africa, is a product of the Amblin/DreamWorks development lab at the high-profile 42nd Street nonprofit theater.

Certainly one of the most intriguing entries of the season will be Jane Anderson's "Defying Gravity," a drama about the space shuttle Challenger disaster that has been developed at New York Stage & Film's program at Vassar over the past couple of summers. Largely known as a film and television writer ("The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Morn," "How to Make an American Quilt"), Anderson returns to her roots in theater ("The Baby Dance") in this high-profile bid opening Nov. 2 at the American Place Theater.

There seems little question that if all goes well with "Defying Gravity" Anderson will be first in line to direct the film version. She recently finished the film of her "The Baby Dance," starring Laura Dern and Stockard Channing, for Jodie Foster's production company in conjunction with Showtime.

The boys have been busy too, of course. The Drama Dept.'s "As Bees in Honey Drown," which moved to the Lucille Lortel Theatre this summer, is a big score for playwright Douglas Carter Beane, who heretofore was known largely as the author of the limp screenplay for "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar." Film stars such as Madonna, Courtney Love and Nicole Kidman have been trooping down to Greenwich Village to get a firsthand look at the juicy central role, played to acclaim by J. Cameron Smith, and Beane is hard at work on a new screenplay.

Wilde ride

Another hot-ticket transfer was the sleeper hit of last season, "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde." Moises Kaufman's absorbing retelling of the Oscar Wilde scandal put the struggling Tectonic Theater Project, which "specializes in plays that explore theatrical language and form," on the map in a big way. Finally, Barry and Fran Weissler ("Chicago") have announced they will effect the transfer to an Off Broadway commercial run of one of the sensations of last year: the New Group's production of Kenneth Lonergan's "This Is Our Youth."

The New Group is under the artistic direction of the brash and bold Scott Elliott, who directed the widely praised jazzy production of "The Monogamist" a couple of years ago. The author of that play, Christopher Kyle, is back this season at Playwrights Horizons with "Plunge," a comedy about a college reunion gone awry. Playwrights also is home this season to "From Above" by Tom Donaghy, the "promising" dramatist of "Northeast Local" and "Minutes From the Blue Route."

Baffled critics

Earlier this summer, Kevin Elyot's "My Night With Reg" had the critics scratching their heads about how this comedy starring a buff and naked Maxwell Caulfield about a group of London gays coping with the AIDS death of a friend managed to win the Olivier for best new comedy. One wonders if it'll be, to quote Yogi Berra, "deja vu all over again," when another Olivier comedy winner, "Mojo" by Jez Butterworth, opens Oct. 28 at the Atlantic Theatre Company. "Beckett on speed" is how one London critic characterized this play about hustling rock 'n' roll star wannabes working the angles in 1958 Soho.

Continuing the British invasion is Martin McDonagh. McDonagh of course, is the hottest of the West End boys, whose "Cripple of Inishmaan" - about the impact of a Hollywood shoot on a remote Irish town - will be going to the Public Theatre this spring. The Atlantic Theatre Company, meanwhile, is trying to get the rights to produce his "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," about a lovestarved Irish woman and her mother.
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Title Annotation:New York: Entertainment Town: Legit; promising playwrights in New York theaters
Author:Pacheco, Patrick
Publication:Variety
Date:Sep 29, 1997
Words:1001
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