The Playgoer: "Well" closing

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

"Well" closing

Producer Liz McCann's gamble of bringing a small adventurous new play by a downtown artist to Broadway has not paid off. Lisa Kron's Well will close on May 14, not even lasting the two more days for the possibility of Tony nominations. Obviously McCann must have calculated that even a bevy of nods for the play and its cast--nay even winning the coveted Best Play award itself--would probably still not boost ticket sales anywhere near the profit margin. The sheer expenses of keeping the show running through the awards on June 11 must have been just too daunting. Not to mention the depressing thought that after going that deep into the red, they probably would still lose to an Irish or English playwright. Even those $300 "premium" tix--yes, even Well tried that--couldn't save them.

I certainly do not wag the finger at Broadway ticket buyers for not being "smart" enough to want to see Well. Having only paid $20 myself for a rush ticket to its first preview in San Francisco last year, I can say it was certainly worth it. But if it's my one Broadway show a year for $60 or $100? My endorsement would certainly have reservations.

Let's face it, a typical Broadway audience has certain expectations when they buy a ticket and enter the theatre. Well does not deliver those. Now we can all think of plays--some equally "experimental" that have fared better on Broadway. Such as I Am My Own Wife. But there, I would argue, it was the sheer virtuosity of Jefferson Mays's performance in a one-man show that became the hook. More importantly, it was the one thing audiences could take away and talk about after the show and tell their friends.

In a commercial environment (and that includes much of the nonprofit world, by the way), plays survive as commodities on the basis of their "cultural capital." The product needs to be of use to the the customer. So with Jefferson Mays, that audience was able to talk about and entertain themselves and others with tales of his acrobatic mimicry. In another kind of case, Doubt, what they talk about is "Did he or didn't he?" In Proof you had just enough of both those elements: a star performer and a "did she or didn't she" mystery. In Lieutenant of Inishmore I bet it will be, "how did they chop up all those bodies?" Or else, "how did they get a cat to do that?"

No doubt McCann and Kron are doing some soul searching. And so should the entire NYC theatre community. But hopefully not about, "Darn it, what do we have to do to put a good new American play on Broadway." Which only leads to more quixotic proposals of slashing union rates, demanding cheaper advertising in the Times, and then pathetically begging tourists to see something they don't want to see. What a waste of time, and we've been there so many times.

To save future Well's from the stigma of failure, we'd be better off asking how to engineer longer Off (or non)-Broadway runs that don't lose money; why we give so much attention to an award which only recognizes plays in theatres of 500-plus seats within five blocks of Times Square; and why we only consider a play worthy if people who don't care about theatre want to see it.


Andrew said...
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Andrew said...
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Andrew said...

(Apologies for the above deleted comments, which were mine--bad links)

I was at a preview last night of a one-woman play by Nilaja Sun called "No Child." ( After the performance, there was a panel talk on the topic of one-person shows which included Lisa Kron and Leigh Silverman. The discussion was primarily about the creative challenges of solo performance, as well as the issues raised by the play, which is about Ms. Sun's experience as a teaching artist at Malcolm X High School in the Bronx (and which is expertly played and directed). At the end, having heard the Well team speak, an audience member asked for more information, at which point Lisa Kron revealed that they were closing. There was an audible gasp from the crowd and a couple of "Oh no!"s as well, all presumably from the theater people there. I'm planning to see Well on Thursday now, and I feel a little guilty for not having gone a few weeks ago when they sent out the e-mails about needing audience, especially given that I did want to see the show. But I can't imagine that even if everyone who got that e-mail had rushed to go (and what show could ever guarantee that?) it would have made much of a difference. How could anything survive on Broadway now that doesn't have those enormous tourist-marketing advantages you're talking about? And what are the reasons for going there--Well was already, it appears, an artistic success of some merit. So it was presumably about the advantages that Broadway (and hopefully Tony-winning) visibility could bring--money, credibility, recognition, future (better-paying, more-attention-getting) opportunities, etc. I don't have the knowledge or experience to speak to the realities & motivations of Broadway producing, but I certainly share in the general NYC-theater dismay about what gets to Broadway and what survives there. For much of the country, Broadway (and the Tony) mean good theater, mean the height of theatrical achievement. Even if theater folks don't see it that way anymore, how do we change the general perception? The Pulitzer, hem?