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September 2, 2014

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Off-Broadway comedy funded by travel industry

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Joan Marcus / Blake Zidell and Associates / Associated Press

Thom Sesma and Michele Ragusa portray a pair of harried travel agents in “Craving for Travel.” The unusual production was funded by the travel industry but was written, acted and directed by people with theater-world credentials.

NEW YORK — A new off-Broadway comedy about a pair of travel agents and their wacky clientele's demands has an unusual source of funding.

It's underwritten by the very industry it portrays.

"Craving for Travel" is the brainchild of Jim Strong, who owns a $40 million-a-year luxury travel company in Dallas and wrote two self-published books. Strong's co-sponsors for the show include Viking and Holland America cruise lines, Travel + Leisure magazine and the Four Seasons hotel chain.

The show is open to the public but a number of performances have been bought out by travel-related businesses. A recent preview audience was filled with travel agents and hotel employees who laughed in recognition at the characters' familiar predicaments — like a last-minute request for rooms at a top resort over Christmas, and a stranded traveler's plea for help after booking his own disastrous trip to China online.

Despite the show's travel industry DNA, its writing, direction and acting is all by folks with bona fide theater credentials. Director and co-writer Andy Sandberg's resume includes producing Nora and Delia Ephron's "Love, Loss and What I Wore" and the Tony Award-winning 2009 revival of "Hair." Actors Michele Ragusa and Thom Sesma have Broadway and off-Broadway credits in everything from "Urinetown" to "The Lion King."

Sandberg said he was "a little suspicious" when Strong first approached him, until he realized Strong "wasn't looking to do an infomercial. He wanted to do a legitimate theater piece and turn it over to legitimate theater people while doing something that boosted the profile of his industry and fighting the impression out there that travel agents are a dying breed with the rise of mass market online travel."

Sandberg and his co-writer Greg Edwards interviewed 30 to 40 people in the travel industry, gathering nuggets for stories in the play that include an elderly couple planning a last grand trip and someone with a "delusional request" to take the USS Intrepid — a World War II aircraft carrier now used as a museum — for a private joyride.

The show's format is a little like an extended "Saturday Night Live" skit. Ragusa and Sesma energetically portray some 30 characters, starting with a pair of rival (and formerly married) travel agents, sometimes on the phone with each other, sometimes on the phone with needy customers, but always managing to meet impossible demands — including that joyride on the Intrepid.

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