’Our Town’ hits Off Broadway

by Leonard Jacobs

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday February 25, 2009

In late January, the Chicago Tribune reported that local theatres "remain resilent" despite the recession. In New York, too, Broadway is putting on a brave face, with an unusually high number of productions opening this spring.

This leaves the rest of New York's theatrical strata - Off-Off-Broadway, which struggles even in boom times, and Off-Broadway, encompassing institutional nonprofits and a handful of commercial houses - to ride out the storm. Especially for commercial efforts, we're talking small casts, single- or no-set shows, and maybe a two-star name to pique the tourists.

Then there's Scott Morfee, the commercial producer who operates Off-Broadway's Barrow Street Theatre, who opens an open-ended run of David Cromer's revival of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" this Thursday. The production has a New York cast and is based on the director's widely acclaimed Chicago revival at the Hypocrites last spring. Given the project's size, Morfee is clearly taking extraordinary financial risks.

"I don't know the final number of union contracts we're offering, but it's 19 roles plus all the understudies, so we're at least at 23 Equity contracts and that number will probably go higher," Morfee says. What's more, the Barrow Street, an intimate house, has been totally reconfigured to accommodate Cromer's vision, with just 150 seats available per performance.

High-risk ventures, however, are Morfee's calling card. After Sept. 11, 2001, he kept a one-person play, "Underneath the Lintel," running for months until the Gotham stage business began to revive. Since taking over management of the Barrow Street in 2003 with his producing partner, Tom Wirtshafter, Morfee has repeatedly rolled the dice on such ostensibly uncommercial projects as Tracy Letts' "Bug," The Civilians' "Gone Missing," Nijaja Sun's "No Child...." and Austin Pendleton's "Orson's Shadow." Still, "Our Town" is of a magnitude larger than anything Morfee has attempted before.

"It's one of the things that make me so excited to be in the show - producers with guts to do the impossible. Why be a human being unless you're trying to do the impossible?" -George Demas

"Let's be honest," Morfee explains. "My interest in 'Our Town' didn't start with the fiscal rationale but with artistic inspiration based on my relationship with David Cromer. This is the third show we've done - he directed 'The Adding Machine' here, which I helped produce, and 'Orson's Shadow.' The thing is, we have never done a revival at the Barrow Street. And 'Our Town' happens to be one of those plays I think should just constantly run in New York.

"And as far as the math," Morfee notes, "you can make it work for any show with certain assumptions. In our case, we'll need big houses, which is something you can't entirely control. I will say, however, that we're offering favorable price points - cheap prices during previews, $40 tickets for on-stage seating."

Morfee has also devised out other ways to boost "Our Town." He's brought in a co-producer in Jean Doumanian, a lead producer of Letts' "August: Osage County" on Broadway. Morfee is also slotting "additional programming complementary to 'Our Town' that will keep the theater solvent and cap on rent. Also, by having some of the lead producers involved in the actual operation of the Barrow Street, "which we are, we have controls over the costs of bringing the play in. This includes such 'in-kind arrangements' as the designer of the reconfigured theater doing his work for free and the Barrow Street's managing director, Michael Page, serving as Cromer's assistant director."

Of course, Morfee says, "some things are not negotiable - a theater charges rent and actors must be paid. This suits George Demas, who plays Constable Warren, just fine.

"It's one of the things that make me so excited to be in the show - producers with guts to do the impossible," Demas explained. "Why be a human being unless you're trying to do the impossible?"

Performances of 'Our Town' have begun, with opening night Thursday, Feb. 26, at the Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow Street in Greenwich Village. Shows are Tuesday-Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at www.smarttix.com, by calling (212) 868-4444 or at the Barrow Street Theatre box office.