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Theater Community Strikes Back at 'Three's Company' Legal Dispute

While "3C" playwright David Adjmi backed down to pressure from legal reps of the vintage 1970s sitcom, a prominent group of playwrights, directors, theater company chiefs and actors is defending his right to publish and continue producing the parody.

Anna Chlumsky, Kate Buddeke, Hannah Cabell and Jake Silbermann in "3C"

NEW YORK -- The Off Broadway world-premiere production of David Adjmi's 3C closed as scheduled on July 14, but the controversy over the playwright's barbed deconstruction of 1970s ABC sitcom Three's Company continues.

An open letter from leading members of the New York theatre community blasts the claim by legal reps for DLT Entertainment, owner of the longrunning sitcom, that Adjmi's play is an act of copyright infringement that damages their client's property. The letter maintains instead that the play is a satirical work, and like all parody, should be recognized as protected speech under the First Amendment.

Signatories of the letter include Martha Plimpton, Terry Kinney, Tony Kushner, Kenneth Lonergan, Stephen Sondheim, Joe Mantello, John Patrick Shanley, Jon Robin Baitz, John Guare, Chris Shinn, Terrence McNally, Jose Rivera, Craig Lucas, Stephen Karam, Stephen Adly Guirgis and Bruce Norris, whose Pulitzer-winning Clybourne Park won this year's Tony Award for best play.

Representatves of such leading theater companies as Lincoln Center Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop and Steppenwolf Theatre Company added their names to the protest.

Through the show's producers, Adjmi became aware of a cease-and-desist letter from DLT's reps, Kenyon & Kenyon, on June 21, the same day 3C opened at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in Greenwich Village. The letter charged that Adjmi had infringed copyright by lifting key elements from Three's Company, including a male lead who pretends to be gay in order to share an apartment with two female roommates without scandalizing the uptight landlord.

Adjmi told The New York Times that through his agents, he responded informally to the cease-and-desist letter by agreeing to refrain from publishing or circulating the script, and to turn down any offers for future productions. He also consented to nix any extension of the five-week Rattlestick run, which is a regular factor in many Off Broadway engagements.

“I can’t afford a fancy lawyer,” Adjmi told the Times. “And I was getting all sorts of conflicting advice from my agents at CAA and my producers, some of whom doubted that the play would meet the legal standards of parody.”

The producers, Piece By Piece Productions, Rising Phoenix Repertory and Rattlestick, released the following statement: "We cannot address the legal issue, but we can say that we believe in 3C — the play, cast, and crew — otherwise we would have never produced it. We always sought to keep the production going for its full, scheduled run. We were able to make that happen and the play received some wonderful reviews and played to sold-out houses."

Reviews for the production, whose cast included Anna Chlumsky (Veep) and Eddie Cahill (CSI: NY), were mixed. But critics unfailingly picked up on the deliberate structural similarities to Three's Company, used by Adjmi to examine sexism, homophobia and other prejudices prevalent in American popular culture of that era.

Adjmi said his aim with the play was to write "a deep critique of the ideologies and assumptions behind the television series, leading to a collective nervous breakdown for the characters.” While Rattlestick's marketing made no direct reference to Three's Company, press materials said the play was "inspired by 1970s sitcoms, 1950s existentialist comedy, Chekhov, and Disco anthems."

"The critical response to the play has generally acknowledged 3C's exploration of the essential aloneness of the characters, and the toxic suffering they endure," said the theater community protest letter. "Mr. Adjmi's intentions are not to replicate Three's Company, but clearly and patently to mutate it into something dark and frightening, savage even."

The protesters take issue with the imbalance of an Off Broadway playwright, whose income is cobbled together largely out of grants and commissions, being bullied by a Wall Street law firm over a network show that was canceled almost 30 years ago.

 "Specious and spurious legal bullying of artists should be vigorously opposed, and that opposition must begin first and foremost with all of us in the New York theatre community," concluded the letter, which aims to attract a pro bono lawyer to take on the case.

Adapted from the hit British sitcom Man About the House, Three's Company aired on ABC from March 1977 through Sept. 1984, and continues to earn revenues in syndication and home-entertainment formats. It starred John Ritter, Joyce DeWitt and Suzanne Somers.

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