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Parked in Broadway's Place.

By Chris Jones

APRIL 6, 1998:  Due to an unexpected resignation at New York Variety, I have spent the last two weeks on a temporary assignment as a Broadway and Off-Broadway critic, reviewing a dozen or so New York shows and writing theater news coverage. In actuality, I did almost exactly what I do here, except in a different city. Although I don't normally write from such a personal perspective (the writer's sorry lot usually being of limited interest), this seems like a rare opportunity to share some of the differences between the two theater communities, from the perspective of the parasitic outsider.

The question I've been asked most since my return is whether time in New York makes one less enamored of the Chicago theater. In some ways it does. While young actors in New York are no more exciting than their Chicago counterparts, it's a different world when it comes to performers over the age of 40. Thanks to the dismal financial rewards of Chicago theater, we have become desensitized to the limitations of continually watching younger actors play older characters (this even happens at many of the bigger troupes in town). In New York, one can be in a tiny 99-seat theater and still have the pleasure of watching experienced actors like Brian Cox or Eli Wallach, even if they are trapped in a lousy play. One can also see, for the most part, better direction. Dan Sullivan's current revival of "Ah, Wilderness!" at the Lincoln Center and Mark Lamos' re-evaluation of the creaking Terence Rattigan drama, "The Deep Blue Sea," are fine examples of how a strong and imaginative concept can revolutionize older scripts. It would be good to see either of these men working in Chicago.

One can, however, see why so many small theater companies prefer to make their way in Chicago. Thanks to a long tradition among the local media of supporting even the roughest monologue in Voltaire (for now), almost everything performed gets a review. This is far from the case in New York, where virtually all non-Equity theater is ignored by the major media. Even Equity Showcase productions are not reviewed. So unless there's room in the budget for actor salaries, coverage is almost impossible to procure. Small and Non-Equity? Stay in Chicago.

Things are much more organized in New York when it comes to a theater's relationship with the media. Thanks to a publication called the Theatrical Index, which lists all upcoming Broadway and Off-Broadway openings, everyone knows which shows are opening when. And because the last four or five previews are open to critics, all of the reviews appear directly after opening. There is none of the perennial Chicago problem of multiple shows opening on the same night, forcing critics to try and split themselves in pieces (and meaning that many shows go uncovered). This could easily be fixed here if the League of Chicago Theatres would publish a guide similar to the Index that could coordinate opening nights and ensure no one steps on each other's toes. It would also help if Chicago troupes opened more preview performances to critics. We desperately need some official publications relating to this theater community­and the League is the obvious group to fill this gap.

Theater news is inevitably a bigger story in New York, and the coverage is much more competitive and hard-edged. A potential rise in Broadway ticket prices (to $80) for fare like "The Lion King" (above) can end up on the front page; in Chicago, we very rarely remark on the costs of going to the theater.

Those in the New York theater, of course, are usually incapable of acknowledging serious work anywhere else. Not in New York tends to mean only Not in New York. So unless one's resume is bulging with credits from the Goodman or Steppenwolf, don't expect a lot of recognition in the Big Apple. Most people merely have a vague sense of there being a lot of theater in Chicago.

There's also a lot of passion (not to mention a warmth and humanity) not so easily seen on the East Coast, and thus many things stuck in my mind on the plane home. We need more commercial productions here. Off-Broadway hits are not arriving any more in a timely fashion (producers Bob Perkins, Mick Leavitt and Michael Cullen: Where are you?). We need better organization, more industry-wide attention paid to actor salaries, more openness to new directors. And it's time someone produced one of the young Irish playwrights whose work has New York ablaze.

If you're going to Manhattan any time soon, don't miss "The Lion King" (good luck getting tickets), "Cabaret" or the Lincoln Center's revival of "Ah, Wilderness!" I'm back to walking up and down Clark Street.

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