Memo to Queens theater groups: Stop playing it safe

By Ron Hellman

I’m leaving a wedding reception in Smithtown, hoping my hearing recovers from countless decibels of deejay music, when a couple approaches to tell me how much they miss the Outrageous Fortune Company.

For those of you who don’t know, Outrageous Fortune was my theater company that produced 50 plays over 17 years at what was then known as Queens Theatre in the Park. It’s been more than five years since the company’s last production, but it’s always nice to be remembered.

The company was headquartered in my Douglaston law office, and we did what we called “contemporary plays of significance,” authored by many of today’s major playwrights. Actors were cast after competitive auditions, guided by directors who had a strong connection to the material, and rehearsals were held until the play was fully ready to be seen.

Check out our website at www.OutrageousFortuneCompany.com to see the play list. Unless you’re a theater maven, many of these titles may be unfamiliar, even though they were well received when performed in Manhattan.

There are many good, compelling and entertaining plays being written these days, some of which get the chance for a major professional production. But the unfortunate economic realities limit their run, even with positive reviews and the casting of celebrities. Bringing these plays to Queens would seem a smart thing to do — which Outrageous Fortune did — but most local theater companies opt instead for the name recognition of the same old stuff.

American Theater Magazine publishes a list of the top 10 most-produced plays and the top 20 most-produced playwrights in the country. For the current 2015-16 season, not one of those plays was presented in Queens, and not one of the playwrights.

However, in a list all to himself is William Shakespeare, and we did get to see some of his work.

I have been writing this column for more than eight years, and I see that most of the recent ones have been repeating the same themes — looking to elevate the quality and variety of our local efforts, to develop a new and younger audience, and to create new stages in real theaters. My goal has always been to promote and publicize theater in Queens, and I welcome your input.

Maybe I’m just getting too cranky, with another leap year birthday on the horizon. Or maybe it’s the inescapable life-sapping barrage of the political season. Or the Mets not quite making it.

One group with some new ambitions is Theatre By The Bay in Bay Terrace. They have a new artistic director, Ovi Vargas, who takes over from founding director Larry Bloom. Playing it safe, the initial production is Stephen Sondheim’s first Broadway show for which he wrote both music and lyrics, “A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum” — two more performances remain, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

However, in the program Vargas states his intention to bring “exciting, visionary, inventive and bold productions” to his audiences. That is certainly something to look forward to.

And just the other night I’m at Terrace on the Park for Whitestone’s Patricia and Joe Brintle’s gala to raise funds for projects in Haiti, when yet another couple tells me that they were fans of The Outrageous Fortune Company.

Now if I only had a new venue!

Contact Ron Hellman at RBHOF[email protected]il.com.

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