DRAMA DEPARTMENT: How 'Let's Put On a Show' Really Came True
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 started.''

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. Harrington.

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 exciting.''

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 Pan Alley.

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,' '' he said.

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 transportation fee.

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.''

"Jodhpurs," Mr. Rosenberg proposed.

"I think 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 Scottish Play!"

New York Times, July 27, 1997

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