Artistic Director Jeff Church says it's not a burden to stage new works -- they don't necessarily take any more rehearsal time or tax the actors any further than an old classic. But it isn't always easy, either. New plays that could engage the Coterie's youth and adult audiences don't exactly drop out of the sky.
But for four years now, the Coterie has been in a fruitful relationship with New York University's New Plays for Young Audiences program. The Coterie needs to develop new plays, and the New Plays program, held in June at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, needs theaters to stage them.
"I think the Coterie is the most sophisticated theater of its kind in the country," says Lowell Swortzell, New Plays' artistic director and NYU professor emeritus of educational theater. His own institution's role is "a stop in the road of a play's life," he says. "At whatever stage a new play may be, we want to take it to the next step."
Earlier this summer, Church was in New York with frequent Coterie playwright Laurie Brooks and several Kansas City acting alums to test the merits of Brooks' new play, The 12:07.
Unlike other Brooks plays, like The Wrestling Season and The Tangled Web, which were geared to the Coterie's high school audience, The 12:07 features characters and themes that are more adult. It stars Tanisha Thompson, who was known as Dannye Thompson when, as a high school student in the mid-'90s, she worked on various stages in Kansas City. Thompson plays a transgendered woman named Joey passing as a man who meets a daredevil (some would say suicidal) teenage boy. Without malice, Joey insinuates himself into a Long Island family whose father figure is AWOL.
Also starring former Kansas City residents Andrew Gilchrest and Andrew Lee Persinger, the play earned mostly positive feedback after three staged readings the last weekend of June. Its subject is tough and its language tougher, but that's not the primary reason why Church says it's not Coterie material.
"It isn't the transgender issue that I'm squeamish about," he says. "When you get down to it, the play's about how love is genderless. And it's about fatherhood. What concerns me is the amount of time the teenager's onstage. I think it's not a Coterie play because the youth protagonist was not central to the play, and that's my rule."
Some members of the audience (many of them NYU grad students) thought the material was inappropriate for young audiences. Swortzell disagrees.
"Put into the context of a high school auditorium or a theater like the Coterie with students from different schools, there could be some embarrassment and giggles," he tells the Pitch. "But I think these are issues kids are dealing with anyway."
But there are other barriers as well. The Coterie's Equity contract stipulates that its shows must clock in under eighty minutes -- another reason The 12:07, which runs two acts in two hours, isn't going to appear on the theater's Crown Center stage anytime soon.
Brooks and Church both say they knew from the beginning that The 12:07 was not a typical production for a theater for young audiences. But the Coterie's involvement in the New York reading was a way the two artists could nurture a professional relationship and bring national attention to both Brooks and the Coterie.
Because Brooks' play The Wrestling Season premiered in Kansas City but has since been staged all over the country, the Coterie is seen as a place where potentially risky theater for teenagers has a chance to thrive.
Brooks says her career wouldn't be where it is today if it weren't for the four plays she's developed with the theater. "The Coterie is mighty brave, and that's something they should be better known for."
The show has been trying to find its bearings for a couple of years. It was previously called Wise Guys and starred Nathan Lane at the New York Theatre Workshop. Not many people took to it, and he went back to work, eventually giving it yet another abandoned title, Gold. So how does it fare?
From the top, quite well. The overture is one of Sondheim's best ever. It's vibrant and brassy, not unlike the overtures to the big MGM musicals of a simpler time. The audience actually listened to it and responded heartily.
Directed by the legendary Harold Prince, Bounce is the true tale of the Mizner brothers, whose fortunes and schemes during the first decades of the twentieth century were hot as often as cold. Wilson (Howard McGillin) is the slicker of the two. Addison (Richard Kind) is the heart to Wilson's mind and the one who doesn't cut the apron strings until mortality intervenes.
Costarring 2003's Tony Award-winning Michelle Pawk and Thoroughly Modern Millie alumnus Gavin Creel, the show plays rather episodically -- the boys hatch a plan, it flops, and then they're on to the next. Despite jaunty songs, Act One is a bit bogged down in these by-the-numbers plot developments.
In Act Two, Sondheim adroitly picks up the pace. Much of the second half documents the Mizners' transformation of Boca Raton, Florida, from a swampy no-man's-land with one hotel to a millionaire's playground. In Creel's solo, "Talent," selective ears will hear a hint of Sondheim's own biography. It's about a young man uninterested in business and industry when the performing arts beckon so brightly.
Unlike the speculative Mizner brothers, no one's emphatically touting Bounce as Broadway-bound. I'd say it certainly deserves a shot.