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Full Court Press Why are there so many plays on Broadway? The ever-busy Jeffrey Richards is one reason.
Jeffrey Richards may not have been born in a trunk, but he was certainly born to the theater: His mother, Helen Stern Richards, was a longtime Broadway general manager and press agent. And now her son is one of New York’s preeminent producers and press agents himself, and he’s possibly among the busiest men in the business, with six new shows this past season alone: Desire Under the Elms, reasons to be pretty, Blithe Spirit, You’re Welcome, America: A Final Night With George W. Bush, Hair, and Speed-the-Plow.

“I went with a colleague the other day for a late-night burger in the East Village, and just for the heck of it we went to a psychic,” says Richards, sitting in a midtown office lined with framed posters for hit shows and obscurities alike. “The psychic said, ‘You should have your own business, and then you need to do is put some more time and energy into your business.’ And my friend said to me, ‘All you do is work!’ ”

Though he was raised on regular theatregoing, Richards can point to a few watershed moments that propelled him to his current role as a producer/press agent, with an emphasis on straight plays.

“When I was growing up, the play that I particularly loved was Purlie Victorious by Ossie Davis,” Richards recalls fondly. “My mother was the general manager on it, but I truly loved the play. I was like 12 or 13, and I must have seen it 30 or 40 times. I still think it’s a wonderful play, and I’d love to produce it someday.”

He was first lured into producing by the Fringe hit The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), which he mounted Off-Broadway in 1995 and again in 2001. “I couldn’t get enough of it; it just made me feel so good after I’d seen it,” Richards raves.

Later, the English import Enchanted April enchanted him enough to take it Broadway in 2003 (one of the dogs that roams his offices, 12-year-old Lotty, is named for that show’s idealistic heroine). But it wasn’t until 2005, with an acclaimed revival of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, that Richards began the roll he still seems to be on today. Among the productions to have his imprimatur in the intervening years were Spring Awakening, Talk Radio, The Homecoming, Radio Golf, November and August: Osage County.

In addition to producing, he and his press office, which includes Irene Gandy, a colleague for 22 years, also handle the advertising, marketing and promotion for nearly all their shows (Hair and reasons to be pretty are repped by another firm). How does Richards keep up such a pace, and does he plan to keep it up?

“I don’t know—it depends how much I fall in love with,” says Richards. “When I was strictly a press agent, you know, you’re running a business and it’s difficult to afford to promote only projects you truly love. Sometimes I took on shows and did the best job I could; it didn’t mean that I loved everything. As a producer, you pick and choose what you want to do.

“Ultimately to me, it’s all about the writers and the directors,” he continues, pointing to his Playbill bio, which consists almost entirely of a list of names of playwrights and directors. “I owe it all to them. I don’t mention all the plays or the productions or awards. To me, the reward is the opportunity to work with so many of the writers, and with so many of the great directors I’ve been able to work with.”

He fondly recalls witnessing a lunchtime conversation between two of the writers he’s produced, Gore Vidal and David Mamet. “That’s the joy of this job, who I get to work with,” Richards says.

Though he enjoys musicals and has produced his share—his last Off-Broadway effort was The Great American Trailer Park Musical—he reserves a special place in his heart for non-musical productions.

“I just love plays,” Richards effuses. “When they work, there’s nothing better—the ideas, the language, the artistry that comes together with the directors, the artists onstage, the designers who create that vision.”

It’s an affinity Richards knows he shares, which is why he remains bullish about theatre even in a recessed economy.

“Restaurants might be suffering a little bit more,” he concedes. “You have a kitchen at home, right? You don’t have a stage. If you want to go see a pop concert or a ballet or an opera or a play, you go to the theatre. Even though theatre is thought of as a luxury item, it’s a luxury item that is still an experience. It’s unique. And when a straight play reaches you, your mind and your heart, that’s unique—it’s just being done through language and ideas.”

Next up for Richards: Mamet’s new play, Race, slated for next season, with the playwright himself making his Broadway directing debut, and a new play by Alex Dinelaris called Still Life.

Oh, and the small matter of putting a Huxtable into August: Osage County.

“That was my idea,” Richards says of the unconventional idea of casting the powerhouse actress Phylicia Rashad in the role of nightmare matriarch Violet Weston in Tracy Letts’ sprawling comedy. Rashad will take over the part from Estelle Parsons on May 26. Richards credits his partner, Irene Gandy, as his “secret weapon,” since she’s a friend of Rashad’s and was instrumental in making the connection.

“I remembered that Phylicia loved the play, and she’s such a great actress—we think it’s going to work,” Richards says. Then, talking like a true press agent, he adds: “We’ve been very fortunate with our cast: We’ve got John Cullum and Elizabeth Ashley and Frank Wood, all Tony Award winners, and now with Phylicia, a Tony winner, we’ll be the only straight play in town with four Tony winners onstage.”

Did he just change hats between press agent and producer there?

“I don’t think you ever take off a hat,” he says.

pics this page [Deborah Rush, Rupert Everett, Angela Lansbury, Jayne Atkinson and Simon Jones in Blithe Spirit ; Carla Gugino and Brian Dennehy in Desire Under the Elms;  Thomas Sadoski and Piper Perabo in Reasons to be Pretty; Estelle Parsons and Amy Morton in August: Osage County]