Over the past few years, local theatergoers have become used to the idea that today’s hit plays and musicals in New York City will shortly appear on one of the city’s two dozen professional and semiprofessional stages.
So it wasn’t a big surprise when the small but accomplished Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York announced plans last year to mount a production of Aaron Posner’s new play “My Name is Asher Lev” in May.
That plan was chugging along smoothly, with the play fully cast, subscriptions and single tickets sold, publicity materials printed and critics (myself included) duly excited at the prospect. But late last year, well into JRT’s season, the theater received an order from one of the show’s New York-based producers to cease and desist in its plans to produce the play.
It turns out that “Asher Lev,” an adaptation of the Buffalo-born writer Chaim Potok’s 1976 novel, had received a positive review in the New York Times and its run at the Westside Theatre was extended. And for reasons that the producer, the playwright, the rights organization Dramatists Play Services declined to explain, JRT was barred from producing it.
Dramatists Play Service, which handles the rights for many plays, claims that it never officially granted JRT the rights to perform the play. Instead, it sat on JRT’s application for months and didn’t get around to declining the rights until it was almost too late for JRT to do anything about it.
Fortunately, the plucky company, now in its 11th season, scrambled and replaced “Asher Lev” with a production of James Sherman’s comedy “The God of Isaac.” The “Asher Lev” cast gladly switched roles, director and JRT co-founder Saul Elkin found a few more actors, and the show will go on.
Because of miscommunication issues among JRT staffers about whether the theater officially had the rights, there is blame to go around. But the way the issue was handled by various entities in New York raises questions about the motives of the play’s producers, of Dramatists’ Play Service and even of the playwright.
The playwright and lead producer, Darren Baggert, were unwilling to assist JRT in its desire to resolve the conflict, said JRT co-founder David Bunis, who tried every avenue, including appealing to Potok’s widow. My repeated attempts to contact the playwright and producer for an explanation were ignored, reinforcing the idea that they couldn’t care less about the struggles of a small theater company in Buffalo that wanted to honor one of its native sons.
The unfairness of the issue comes into sharper relief when you consider that a theater company in Harrisburg, Pa. – much closer to New York City – was allowed to mount its own production of the play earlier this year.
Craig Pospisil, director of nonprofessional rights at Dramatists Play Services, declined to explain why JRT’s production was shut down, saying only that the company “never had permission from us” and that rights may be denied for various contractual reasons.
In a brief conversation with Baggert, Bunis was unceremoniously rebuffed.
“His explanation was they’re doing it on Broadway and they decided not to let anyone have rights to it until possibly July which would have been too late for us to announce our season,” Bunis said. “He was unwilling to help us out, this little theater in Buffalo. We’re too much competition for him, I guess.”
The idea that a tiny production in Buffalo poses any threat to a concurrent one off-Broadway is absurd.
This looks terrible on Posner and his producers. But it reflects better on the folks at JRT, who figured out a way to ensure that the show goes on.