THE FIRST TIME the playwright Douglas Carter Beane convened
the group of theater artists who call themselves the Drama
Dept., he wanted historical resonance. So he scheduled a lunch
at Sardi's, the famous Times Square restaurant whose dining
rooms are lined with caricatures of Broadway legends. When he
announced the location to Sarah Jessica Parker, the actress
said: ''That way, when we say we're going to start a theater
company, the walls will roll their eyes. 'Here we go again!'
It's true that for eager
theater-school graduates and bored movie stars, starting a
theater company is like winning the lottery: everyone dreams
about it and hardly anyone does it. Three years after its
conception, though, the nonprofit Drama Dept. has put itself
on the map with three successful productions in a row. Its
latest, Mr. Beane's comedy ''As Bees in Honey Drown,'' earned
glowing reviews when it opened last month at the Greenwich
House Theater. The production, directed by the fast-rising
star Mark Brokaw, has transferred to the Lucille Lortel
Theater for a commercial run.
Reviewing ''As Bees in Honey
Drown,'' about a young gay novelist swept into the Manhattan
fast lane by a femme fatale named Alexa Vere de Vere, Ben
Brantley in The New York Times called it a ''delicious souffle
of a satire'' by a group ''made up of some of New York City's
most exciting theater talents.'' And of the Drama Dept.'s past
work, he said, ''Having brought an invigorating alchemy to
such innately unpromising material as a Tennessee Williams
flop ('Kingdom of Earth') and a forgotten American comedy of
1929 ('June Moon'), they haven't spoiled their track record
with their first original play.''
The acclaim has given them a
theater-to-watch status they share with small companies like
the New Group, Naked Angels and the Signature Theater. But the
Drama Dept. is under no illusion that its winning streak will
go on indefinitely. ''In a way, we need a big, fat
embarrassing failure, so we look like everybody else and can
take chances again,'' said the actor and director Mark Nelson.
''The attention has been intoxicating. But it's not why we
It all began with a car ride.
After a production of one of his plays, ''The Country Club,''
in Vermont starring Cynthia Nixon, Mr. Beane tried to get
other theaters interested. He, Michael S. Rosenberg, who had
been his assistant director, and Ms. Nixon drove upstate for a
reading of the play. ''It was a horrible experience,'' Mr.
Beane said. ''The actors were hung over. Nobody had read the
play. They were openly mispronouncing words like 'ennui.'
Driving back to New York, we grumbled about how horrible
theater was. You can only complain for about two hours. By the
third, we were thinking we should have our own company. The
next morning I called Cynthia and said, 'Are you serious?'
That's how it started.''
Ms. Nixon invited two fellow
actors, John Cameron Mitchell and J. Smith-Cameron, to join.
Mr. Beane brought in the playwright Nicky Silver and the
director David Warren, who came with a group of actors they
had been working with, including Peter Frechette, Patricia
Clarkson, Hope Davis and John Slattery. The list of founding
members would grow to nearly 40 people and involve the
director Lisa Peterson, the playwrights Peter Hedges and
Richard Greenberg, the actors Albert Macklin, K. Todd Freeman,
Peter Gallagher and Billy Crudup and the designer Wendall K.
None of them were newcomers.
All had credits in theater, film and/or television. ''The
great advantage for us,'' said Mr. Nelson, who is in the cast
of ''Bees,'' ''is that it's not about finding an agent or
getting a movie. We've all done that. It's more about finding
what interests us.''
WHAT THEY WERE BEING asked to
join, according to Mr. Beane, who serves as the group's
artistic director, was ''somewhere between a lesbian
collective -- everybody gets to do whatever they want, and
we're all supportive and nurturing -- and an old-fashioned
movie studio, developing projects for a talented bunch of
writers, directors, actors and designers.'' Orson Welles's
Mercury Theater was a role model Mr. Beane mentioned, ''or
those Preston Sturges movies where the mayor in one movie is
the janitor in the next.''
That vision sounded
tantalizing. ''Every actor has the fantasy of working in a
company where you have a shorthand with everyone,'' said Ms.
Smith-Cameron, who portrays Alexa Vere de Vere in Mr. Beane's
play. ''Almost everybody in the Drama Dept. is someone I've
worked with before. That starts being exponentially
For the first year, the
company met in Mr. Beane's Chelsea living room on Thursday
afternoons and read plays that intrigued them, with an
emphasis on neglected classics. The list ranged from minor
masterworks (''The Sea'' by Edward Bond, Shaw's ''Too True to
Be Good'') to bygone Broadway hits (S. J. Perelman's ''Beauty
Part,'' Moss Hart's ''Light Up the Sky'') to more recent
oddities (Arthur Kopit's ''Oh Dad, Poor Dad,'' Tina Howe's
''Birth and Afterbirth'').
The Drama Dept.'s first two
productions -- in June 1996 and January 1997 -- were initiated
and directed by actors. Mr. Mitchell uncovered the humor and
sadness beneath the excesses of Williams's ''Kingdom of
Earth,'' and Mr. Nelson won high praise for staging ''June
Moon,'' George S. Kaufman and Ring Lardner's comedy about Tin
Drama Dept. members who were
not in the casts pitched in backstage. ''It sounds idyllic and
it is,'' said Ms. Nixon, who has appeared in all three company
productions. ''Doug has a way of making things fun.''
Mr. Beane, 38, tall, stocky
and endlessly wise-cracking, was smitten with theater when he
was a child in Wyomissing, Pa. ''While other kids were playing
ball, I was sitting in front of the TV set memorizing lines
from movies, especially movies about theater, like 'Imitation
of Life' and 'All About Eve,' '' he said, chatting in his
apartment on West 16th Street. A self-described ''theater
rat,'' he tended bar in Broadway theaters and worked as a
doorman at the Neil Simon Theater for 10 years to support
himself while writing plays.
When three of his works were
optioned for commercial production, he quit his doorman job.
''Advice to a Caterpillar'' closed after a brief run at the
Lortel; the others slipped away as well. He turned to
baby-sitting rather than go back to his job. ''I didn't want
to be the old man at the stage door with people whispering,
'He had a play done in the early 80's -- didn't work out,' ''
In desperation, he wrote a
screenplay that became the Hollywood movie ''To Wong Foo,
Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar,'' starring Patrick Swayze,
Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo as drag queens touring middle
America in a broken-down Cadillac. The movie was produced by
Steven Spielberg, whose $10,000 contribution primed the pump
for other Drama Dept. donations. Mr. Beane arranged a two-year
development deal for the Drama Dept. with New Line Cinema and
its art-film division Fine Line Features, whose releases
include ''Twelfth Night'' and ''Love! Valour! Compassion!''
For now, the company is busy
enough: in addition to the transfer of ''As Bees in Honey
Drown,'' it is preparing to remount ''June Moon'' in September
at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J. If all goes well,
it is expected to move to a small Broadway house. In October
the company will launch its third season with a series of
weekly readings, followed by a production of the melodrama
''Uncle Tom's Cabin,'' a 1930's musical and the first new play
financed by New Line/Fine Line.
Still, the Drama Dept. is
proceeding with fiscal caution. It maintains a low overhead
and rents theater space only when needed. The annual budget is
rock-bottom: $60,000 the first year, $80,000 the second. The
figures are made possible by operating on a showcase contract
with Actors' Equity. The union limits a production budget to
$15,000 and the number of performances to 12, since actors
under such a contract work for nothing except a $150
With the company's increasing
visibility, Mr. Rosenberg suggested, ''Equity could say we're
not allowed to do showcases anymore, which would limit our
ability to do things so freely. What they do is determine you
to be a 'sophisticated producer.' ''
Glossing over its worrisome
implications, Mr. Beane seized on the terminology. ''That
means we all have to wear monocles.''
Mr. Rosenberg proposed.
monocles. And, like, a monkey fur." Mr. Beane raised
himself to full height, adjusting an imaginary pelt and
invoking the very model of a modern actor-manager. "I'm
VERY sophisticated, and we're going to be doing ... The
New York Times, July 27, 1997