CALIFORNIA/NEW YORK • For decades, The Wooster Group warily circled Harold Pinter's first play, The Room. The theatre troupe - a fixture of the downtown New York experimental theatre scene - never had quite the right configuration of actors nor the right opening in its schedule.
Two years ago, Elizabeth LeCompte, the group's director and leading light, decided it was time. The company began working on the play and last autumn staged preliminary performances in New York; this Thursday, it begins a full (albeit brief) run in Los Angeles.
But it has now hit a serious, and unusual, obstacle.
The Pinter estate, saying the theatre company did not properly secure rights to produce the show, has ordered The Wooster Group to bar theatre critics from reviewing the Los Angeles staging - an eyebrow-raising and presumably unenforceable request.
And, according to The Wooster Group, the estate has indicated that it will not let the company continue with anticipated productions of the play in New York and Paris.
The Wooster Group, a non-profit organisation that often funds its projects by touring, said a prohibition against future stagings of The Room would cause a significant financial loss. And the company believes it did nothing wrong.
"I'm just about to cry right now," LeCompte said. "It's very hurtful."
The Room, written in 1957, features a murky, menacing plot that centres on a couple with a complicated relationship.
According to The Wooster Group, the company asked for permission to present The Room in 2014 and it obtained a licence for the production last autumn in New York.
When the company announced its New York production, it mentioned plans to take the show to Los Angeles; Samuel French Inc, the licensing agent representing the Pinter estate, said it was surprised by that plan.
After several months of back- and-forth (during which time, The Wooster Group says, it was led to believe all would be okay), Samuel French gave the company a licence for the production with a prohibition against publicity, promotion or press reviews; this month, the agency narrowed the restriction to bar only reviews.
Mr Mark Murphy, the executive director of Redcat, the downtown Los Angeles arts centre where The Room will be staged for 10 performances, said he was "baffled".
The theatre, an affiliate of the California Institute of the Arts, has staged seven Wooster Group productions without incident.
"Based on our previous experience, we had no reason to believe, and no indication, that this would be any different than ever," he said.
The estate considers itself unfairly maligned. "The Wooster Group announced the Los Angeles production of Pinter's The Room before securing the rights," Mr Bruce Lazarus, executive director of Samuel French, said in a statement. "Had The Wooster Group attempted to secure the rights to the play prior to announcing the production, the estate would have withheld the rights."
It is not clear how theatre critics will respond to the request that they not review the Los Angeles run. An offended actor-playwright, Colin Mitchell, published on the local theatre website Bitter Lemons a plea for defiance: "Let's flood the LA Media outlets with writing about this show."
The critic for The Los Angeles Times, Charles McNulty, said last Thursday that he was in discussion with his editors.
As seems fitting for anything concerning Pinter, the precise meaning of the dispute is unclear. But it appears that the estate may be concerned not only about what it views as a failure to follow proper procedures, but also about the implications of The Wooster Group production for a possible higher- visibility staging of the play on Broadway or in some other more mainstream and larger audience setting.
"Mr Pinter's catalogue is, as you know, world famous; to keep this catalogue afloat, there are many moving pieces and the work of the estate is not limited to any one single person," a letter from Samuel French to The Wooster Group said.
The Wooster Group, which in New York generally stages its work in a former metal-stamping plant in SoHo, says the idea that anything it does might threaten a larger production is absurd. The company's space, called the Performing Garage, was configured for 110 seats when it staged The Room last autumn.
"Our shows play in small houses, at festivals, at experimental theatre venues," Ms Cynthia Hedstrom, The Wooster Group's producer, said. "We're not in competition with the commercial world. And if they're concerned about number of shows, we'll work with them."
NEW YORK TIMES