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When way off Broadway still isn’t far enough

The Curtain Call Theatre in Braintree was threatened with $150,000 in damages.
The Curtain Call Theatre in Braintree was threatened with $150,000 in damages.handout

Broadway just gave a community theater in Braintree the hook.

The 70-seat Curtain Call Theatre has become the latest to abandon an upcoming production of “To Kill A Mockingbird’’ after receiving a cease and desist letter threatening a major lawsuit on behalf of a powerful Broadway producer staging the play in New York.

The letter, received last week, cites a 50-year-old contract that places limits on amateur stage adaptations of the Harper Lee classic when there is an approved large Broadway or touring production — in this case Scott Rudin’s new Broadway version, written by Aaron Sorkin.

“I thought it was a joke, but it was so severe that I was like, it has to be real,” said Curtain Call president Toni Ruscio, who said her company was about to head into rehearsals when the letter arrived. “We’re just shocked.”

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“It’s like being jilted at the altar,” said Greg Mancusi-Ungaro, a producer for Mugford Street Players in Marblehead, which received a similar letter about their upcoming performance of the play. “We were hanging lights in the theater and hours away from having actors come in to rehearse on the set.”

The Boston-area companies are just two of many small troupes across the country that have had to drop plans to present the play, in their case Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation, which in recent decades has become a staple of community and high school theater groups.

Small theaters from New York to Oklahoma, Ohio to Texas have been left with upended schedules and demands for ticket refunds.

“It’s been tough for us,” said Ruscio, who’d planned to charge $20 a ticket during the six-day run. “Innocent people were affected by this: Actors turned down other projects; children had to be told this wouldn’t be their first performance.”

Rudin’s new stage adaptation opened on Broadway last December.

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In their letter to Curtain Call, Rudin’s attorneys with the firm of Loeb & Loeb argue that their client holds exclusive stage rights to the novel. It adds that although the Illinois-based Dramatic Publishing Co. has the right to license an adaptation for amateur performances, limits kick in if Lee, who died in 2016, approved a major Broadway or touring production. In that case, Dramatic Publishing “shall not permit amateur performances . . . within a distance of [25] miles of the city limits of any city which had a 1960 census population in excess of 150,000” during the run.

The lawyers’ letter threatens damages of up to $150,000. In a statement, Rudin took a softer approach but remained firm.

“We hate to ask anybody to cancel any production of a play anywhere, but the productions in question as licensed by DPC infringe on rights licensed to us by Harper Lee directly,” Rudin said in the statement. “The Sergel play can contractually continue to be performed under set guidelines as described in detail in its own agreement with Harper Lee — and as long as those guidelines are adhered to, we have no issue with the play having a long life.”

The whole matter has baffled Mancusi-Ungaro.

“How would we possibly matter?” he asked. “We’re a bunch of moms and dads, and we’re a threat?”

He added the company had already sold a few hundred tickets to the production, which had been set to open in the 87-seat Marblehead Little Theatre on Friday.

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“We were going to do 11 shows,” he said. “You can tell why the folks in New York were so scared of us.”

Ultimately, Mancusi-Ungaro said, his group came up with a solution: move the play just a bit farther away from Boston, the city with the “census population in excess of 150,000” in 1960.

The Gloucester Stage Company came through with an offer to host the Mugford Street Players production. It is slated to open March 29.

“We moved our show outside the 25-mile limit,” he said, adding he had a “sacred obligation to the cast” to mount the show.

Others have not been so lucky.

“We just don’t have the financial means to fight anything in court,” said Ruscio, who estimated her Braintree-based troupe of volunteer actors might have cleared between $2,000 and $4,000 on the show.

The company is now scrambling to come up with a replacement for “Mockingbird.”

“We haven’t announced our show yet,” she said. “We’re making sure we have the rights to the next one before we announce anything.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.