It's not like there's a lack of female playwrights out there, so why aren't we seeing more of them in the higher echelons of Gotham legit -- particularly since women are the theater's primary ticket buyers?
Partly, there's the belief that when women write plays about women, they aren't being universal enough to court a broader audience.
"There's a perception that if a play is too much the story of one woman, then it doesn't have an Everyman and we can't sell it," says April Yvette Thompson, whose play "Liberty City," co-written with Jessica Blank ("The Exonerated"), opens at New York Theater Workshop this winter.
Auds may not be the only ones wary of a female lead.
"I think sometimes male artistic directors read a play with a female protagonist and think 'What is this about? There is no story,'" says Sarah Ruhl, whose "Eurydice" update recently played Second Stage and whose "Dead Man's Cell Phone" opens next spring at Playwrights Horizons. "They're looking for a male protagonist, and when they don't see one, they can't find the plot."
Ruhl acknowledges that she's one of a handful of current playwrights, male or female, to be embraced by theaters across the country. (This season alone, there will be 17 U.S. productions of her play "The Clean House.") However, she has still received her share of critical drubbings, and she says the dominance of male critics may help keep women's plays off the stage.
"Read reviews of plays by women and look at the way the word 'feminine' is used," Ruhl charges. "It's often used to mean that the play isn't working. There can be an assumption that a woman playwright is reaching to write in a mold already created by a male playwright, and that the woman is doing a bad job of it."
Of course, no single season represents a trend in itself or an exhaustive survey. But a 2002 report from the New York State Council on the Arts offers an interesting point of comparison. It stated that women wrote only 16% of plays produced nationwide during the 2001-02 season, but this year, at the same theater companies, penned 18 of 53 plays, or 34%.
However, in 2001-02, women boasted nine Broadway premieres, including Mary Zimmerman's "Metamorphoses," Heather McDonald's "An Almost Holy Picture," Suzan-Lori Parks' "Topdog/Underdog," and the ABBA-inspired musical "Mamma Mia!" whose book is by Catherine Johnson.
This year, only one new work by a woman is bowing on Broadway -- Theresa Rebeck's "Mauritius" -- while "Top Girls," by Brit playwright Caryl Churchill, will be revived in the spring. (Both are being mounted by Manhattan Theater Club.)
Still, few would say the case for women is hopeless. Despite this season's Broadway dearth, producer Elizabeth I. McCann, who shepherded Lisa Kron's "Well" to the Rialto in 2006, argues that women's commercial prospects are solid.
"An excellent play will be produced no matter who wrote it," she says. "I think the days have passed when gender bias holds up a woman's career."
FEDS STEP IN ON WGA DEBATE
With a writers strike looming, the federal government's stepping in to mediate negotiations between the WGA and the companies after three months of virtually no movement by either side.
The announcement came Friday evening after a day of negotiations concluded with no sign of significant progress. Talks will resume on Tuesday - just a day before the Writers Guild of America contract expires.
"We worked very hard to narrow the issues and reach an agreement but many issues remain unresolved," said Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. "We will meet on Tuesday with the federal mediator who has been assigned by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service."
Talks began Friday morning with a small slice of optimism emerging from the relentless doom and gloom of contract talks. The session lasted most of the day and marked the first time both sides were able to engage in discussing the give-and-take of bargaining - rather than merely presenting proposals - but it's believed the movements were fairly small.
Neither side provided details about the session at WGA West headquarters in Hollywood. And iIn contrast with most recent sessions, Friday's aftermath featured none of the usual finger-pointing statements of blame that have become standard issue.
Negotiators agreed to take the weekend and Monday off -- even though that will leave scant time before the WGA's contract expires at midnight Wednesday.
The decision to take a three-day break will underline the town's growing certainty about the talks - that the WGA plans to take the talks down to the wire, when fears of a strike may push studios and nets to soften on a contract issue in order to avert a work stoppage.
WGA leaders could telling its members to stop working and start picketing as early as next Thursday, should the talks fall apart. But if negotiators are making progress, writers would work under terms of the expired deal.
Studios and nets had presented a comprehensive package at Thursday's session, taking parts of several proposals off the talble with the goal of persuading the WGA to start coming off some of its 26 initital proposals. But the Alliance of Motion Picture & Televison Producers also flatly told the WGA to forget about any gains for residuals for DVDs, the CW, MyNetworkTV or the pay television market.
Those moves left the WGA unimpressed as the guild asserted that the AMPTP had only made "minor adjustments to major rollbacks."
FALL BOX OFFICE BIZ DOWN
After the biggest summer on record, Hollywood dropped the ball in the fall. Through Oct. 21, domestic box office is 6% behind last year, with the lowest total ($785.7 million) since 2001, according to Rentrak.
The main culprit: The studios' big films failed to score. DreamWorks' "The Heartbreak Kid," Universal's "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" and Fox/Walden's "The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising" are among the titles that underperformed.
But another key factor is the corporate takeover of the niche world. For years, rival studios have dreamed of emulating the Fox Searchlight model, with an arm that would release "quality" films. But this fall, many hierarchs have supervised the launches of these pics, trying to apply mainstream strategies to niche films.
The studios' gambles:
Whenever B.O. dips, studio execs accept little blame: The problem, they say, is not the quality of the films, it's the glut of R-rated dramas. But there aren't that many more this year than in previous years. In the past two months, Hollywood debuted 110 movies, up just two from last year.