In reviewing Manhattan Theatre Club's latest offering in their Broadway mainstage house, a revival of a forgotten 1934 comedy Accent on Youth, Time Out's Adam Feldman doesn't waste time in getting right to the heart of the question on the minds of many obersevers of the NYC nonprofit scene:
What is happening at MTC? The company’s website bills it as “one of the only institutions in the U.S. solely dedicated to producing new plays and musicals.” But its Samuel J. Friedman Theatre began the season with the new-in-name-only To Be or Not to Be, adapted from the 1942 film; then came a revival of 1990’s The American Plan; and now this. When did the MTC’s mission become a nostalgia trip? Are its captains asleep on the job? With productions like this one, no one could blame them.The Post's Elizabeth Vincentelli (on her new NY Post blog!) puts it even less "charitably," so to speak:
Myself I don't think Accent on Youth is that much a crime against the theatre. David Hyde Pierce is in top form, Byron Jennings and Charles Kimbrough are wonderful, and, at its best, the scipt plays like a perfectly charming Molnar farce or Lubitsch film. (Its author Samson Raphaelson was one Lubitsch's screenwriters of choice.) But for $100 a seat???
To say I didn't like the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of "Accent on Youth" is the understatement of the year. Adding insult to injury are a couple of innocuous lines about two thirds of the way down the cast page in the Playbill: "Manhattan Theatre Club productions are made possible in part with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency."
You know, if our tax dollars are going to help MTC mount this type of production, we should ask for some accountability in return. After all, if it's required of the auto industry, why not of our local not-for-profit theater institutions?
The truth is, Accent would be a perfectly fine choice in a rep theatre's second (or third) space. But MTC--despite the fact that, as Feldman points out, they're decidedly not a rep company--made an oddly fateful decision. They programmed this brittle trifle in their high visibility (and Tony-eligible) Broadway venue, while the play they imported from Chicago that would eventually win the Pulitzer--Ruined--got stuck in their Off Broadway "Stage 1". And there it remains, even after its sixth(!) extension.
In short, despite incredible buzz coming out of Chicago's Goodman, where the premiere was a box office phenomenon, MTC didn't know what they had.
Of course, we can ask whether Ruined--a sober drama by a nonfamous playwright about abuse of women in the Congo and with no star--would be well served on Broadway, its commercial potential so limited. But at least it would have been eligible for a Tony! Plus, at just 650 seats, MTC's "Samuel J. Freedman" (formerly The Biltmore) is only about twice as big as the 299-er Stage 1.
And, by the way, average attendance capacity for Accent at the Freedman last week? 49.3%. That's right, about 300 seats. So at least it seems Ruined couldn't do much worse.
(Even at Broadway prices, I would bet. Even Off Broadway, MTC is charging $75 for Ruined. With a $96.50 top, Accent is only $20 more, and with a $56.50 balcony option.)
I usually don't care a whit about a theatre's mission statement, but in this case it is indeed odd that a company so professly devoted to new plays and new writers would use their prime venue this season to dig up antiques. When they opened The Biltmore five years ago (at a great expense that plummeted the company into dire financial straits even before the recession), their justification was to bring the serious new American dramatic play back to Broadway. In other words, that's where those public funds were supposed to be going.
Everyone's allowed to fail. But I just can't help asking: wouldn't producing Ruined on Broadway have finally been the fulfillment of that stated mission?