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Pulitzer-winning ‘Wife’ already looking past Broadway

And sold-out ‘Farnsworth’ may be extended

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Doug Wright

Doug Wright

NEW YORK — On Wednesday the Goodman Theater in Chicago announced that the Broadway production of Doug Wright's "I Am My Own Wife," starring Jefferson Mays, would start performances there in January, which means the solo show must close on Broadway by then or replace its star.

The timing was strange, considering that the play, currently at the Lyceum Theater, had won the Pulitzer Prize for drama two days earlier. It just goes to show that while the Pulitzer can have a significant effect on sales, it has only so much staying power at the box office.

"I want to take the show on the road while it's still hot," said David Richenthal, the lead producer, who is in talks with theaters across the country, including the Kennedy Center in Washington and Seattle Rep.

Mays, who plays more than 40 parts in the play, but mainly Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite who survived both the Nazi era and the postwar communist regime of East Germany, will leave the New York production by Thanksgiving, Richenthal said. Whether he is to be replaced "remains an open question," he said.

On Tuesday, daily ticket sales were up by 125 percent from the previous Tuesday, and Wednesday was even better. How long the upswing will continue is anyone's guess, but skeptics point to last year's winner, "Anna in the Tropics," which closed in February after 113 performances, losing almost its entire investment.

"I think this is different," Richenthal said. "The Pulitzer will shift perception of the show, especially for those who think of it as just a monologue. It tells the public that this is a full-fledged drama with many characters."

Richenthal, who started running advertisements trumpeting the award on Wednesday, added that the play had a better chance for success because it was already running — "Anna" won before it had even been produced in New York — and was prepared to take advantage of the inevitable attention. The honor could also help the show in consideration for future awards, like the Tonys.

In the past decade only two plays have won the Pulitzer while running on Broadway, and both eventually made back their investments. But this evidence is by no means conclusive. The 2002 winner, "Topdog/Underdog," opened the same week it won the award, so it is difficult to discern the effect the prize had on sales. And in 2001 "Proof" received only a slight bump.

"Look, the Pulitzer can't hurt," said Emanuel Azenberg, an experienced Broadway producer. "You don't see producers taking out ads saying 'Not the Pulitzer prize-winning show.' "

WHO'S MOVING NOW? With the dearth of quality new plays on Broadway this season, it's no surprise that any new off-Broadway drama that receives decent reviews is rumored to be transferring. A.R Gurney's "Mrs. Farnsworth" is the flavor of the week — and why not? It has two bankable stars in Sigourney Weaver and John Lithgow, a positive notice from The New York Times and anti-Bush political themes just in time for the campaign season.

The play has sold out its run at the Flea Theater, where it must close on May 8. "We feel 100 percent confident that this play will have a new life," said the Flea's press representative, Nella Vera.

Last week it looked as if "Frozen" was heading to the Circle in the Square, and one of its stars, Brian F. O'Byrne, dropped out of the Kennedy Center's production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" in May to make room in his schedule for a Broadway run. While a transfer is still not out of the question, the production has had trouble finding an investor, so talks have cooled off for now.

THE STREET THAT WAS — "The impact of Disney on 42nd Street is exaggerated," says Anthony Bianco, author of "Ghosts of 42nd Street: A History of America's Most Infamous Block" (William Morrow), which will be available in bookstores on Tuesday, 100 years and five days after the naming of Times Square.

"Although the street is often accused of being homogeneous, it's actually not, economically or architecturally," he said. "The audience that goes to the movies on the west side of the street is different than the ones who see 'The Lion King."'

Often overlooked, said Bianco, a reporter for Business Week, is the crucial role played by Playwrights Horizons, the nonprofit theater that moved to 42nd Street between 9th and 10th avenues in 1975, back when the neighborhood was better known for transvestite prostitutes than singing lions. "It created the mood and momentum for what would happen down the block with Disney," he said.

Bianco's dense and vividly written book describes a street that seems as determined to reinvent itself as an aging pop idol. While today's 42nd Street still occasionally betrays traces of the golden era of Broadway, as well as the days when it was lined with B-movie theaters, some things — such as roof gardens on theaters and lobster palaces, those lavish after-theater hangouts like Murray's Roman Gardens and Rector's where the extravagant decor was as memorable as the food — have been lost to history.

"I would love to see those two make a comeback," Bianco said. "At one point, Warner LeRoy, the restaurateur, was going to take over the Times Square Theater and build a latter-day lobster house, but it never happened." (But a Red Lobster has opened around the corner on Broadway.) He viewed the current 42nd Street as being in a transitional period. "Over time it will change again," he said.