The Playgoer: Best American Play on Broadway to Close After One Week

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Best American Play on Broadway to Close After One Week

I thought nothing could shock me about the state of Broadway anymore.

We all know the Rialto is not a safe space for dramatic plays--at least those lacking celebrities.

But not only did the current Brighton Beach Memoirs revival get very strong reviews...but I can attest personally that the production is also a wonderful, wonderful thing to behold. A beautifully acted and masterly directed (by David Cromer) mounting of, yes, what would normally be a so-so play but here is delivered as a very satisfying confection of tasteful and tearful family drama. (Notice I'm not saying "laugh riot." The laughs are there, but they're not the selling point. And it says a lot that the role of the wisecracking teenage narrator, Eugene--made so central by Matthew Broderick's original performance--now fades into the sepia-toned woodwork, giving way to much more satisfying characters.)

So, no masterpiece. But I left feeling there will always be a market on Broadway for a really well done middlebrow bourgeois family drama. In short, I thought it would be a hit.

Not so, apparently. The producing team just announced it's closing tomorrow. Just one week after opening.

Yesterday, Playbill was reporting the notice was "provisional," leaving open the possibility that the move was an attempt to suddenly boost sales. According to the initial release:"The notice can be taken down at any time and no final decision on closing will be made until Monday, Nov. 2, when a statement will be issued."

But this morning, NY Times' ArtsBeat reports it as a done deal.

Ok, ok, you're saying. Don't get so worked up about the closing of an old Neil Simon play.

I wish I could have gotten together some kind of review sooner to make my case for the show in more detail. However, with it closing tomorrow, I say if you had any interest in seeing this--or any interest in seeing Cromer's work--definitely go.

Meanwhile, if nothing else, this certainly provides a tantalizing case, from a producing standpoint, of what went wrong? And it forces the question: is the state of serious drama on Broadway much, much worse on Broadway than we even thought?

That there were problems behind the scenes was clear back on October 20, when lead veteran producer (and Neil Simon's perennial producer) Manny Azenberg was frank with the Times, in an article about how much indeed the Broadway biz is relying on marquee names this season:

Ticket sales have been so slow for “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” a Neil Simon play that originally ran for more than three years on Broadway, that some theater insiders are skeptical that its producers will have the financial means to open its companion piece — Mr. Simon’s follow-up play “Broadway Bound” — as scheduled in December, unless grosses improve for “Brighton Beach.” Emanuel Azenberg, the lead producer of both “Brighton Beach” and “Broadway Bound,” said on Tuesday that since the two revivals lack major stars to help sell tickets, “honestly, we need a blessing from the critics.” He added, “With a blessing from the critics, we can go forward full steam.”
Despite this obvious wink/plea to the Times' Ben Brantley--the one critic whose "blessing" seems to matter--Brantley only like it, not loved it (Critic-O-Meter sums up his notice as a "B+") but most of the other major dailies gave it outright A's.

But of course it's ticket sales that matter, not reviews in newspapers that no one reads anymore. And after slogging through a preview period averaging only 60% capacity (in a 1200-seat house), Azenberg & co. staked everything on a huge jump in advance sales the moment the reviews came out. Apparently that did not happen. (Box Office figures since October 26 not yet publicly available.)

The advance was, literally, doubly important in this case because Brighton Beach was only one of the plays in Azenberg's project. His whole idea was to pair it with Simon's later sequel, Broadway Bound. I guess he figured--same set, most of the same characters, why not. Two for one! And after all, folks just couldn't get enough of those three Tom Stoppard plays about frickin' Russia, for crying out loud. So a Neil Simon play about Brooklyn should be a synch. (Maybe he thought it would attract Brighton Beach's more recent Russian immigrants?) The fact that the also-British Norman Conquests trilogy struggled to lure three-peat ticket buyers this summer seemed not to deter him.

Fatal flaw number one--both Coast of Utopia and Norman were not only British (and hence front-loaded with snob appeal for the affluent, i.e. those who can afford tickets) but were also produced by nonprofits: respectively, Lincoln Center Theatre and London's Old Vic, who created Norman before its commercial tour to NYC.

So here's Manny Azenberg thinking he can create a rep-production from scratch in a commercial venue in 2009, and actually make money. The last time such a thing was tried I believe was the Broadway Angels in America back in 1993 But I'm not sure how that did overall, and the second part, Perestroika opened six months (and one Tony Award sweep) after Millenium Approaches. Plenty of time to build an advance. Plus, it benefited from the buzz (in the still-influential print media of the time) of being the hottest new American play in a long while.

Broadway Bound, on the other hand, was set to begin previews in just three weeks, November 18. (I assume they were already in rehearsal?)

So Azenberg was looking at a massive, massive bill, huge weekly operating expenses, and very little income. And he was surprised???

Of course, the whole plan was premised on the belief that Neil Simon's name alone would attract the sales. But even that hasn't been true in a long time.

The postmortems on this one will be interesting, to say the least. Many will undoubtedly ask if Brighton Beach would have survived ok if it had not been yoked to this crazy rep idea. It seems that the financial burden of Broadway Bound is what really sunk the first play.

I must say, leaving the Nederlander Theatre that night, I was so satisfied with what I had seen that, rather than whetting my appetite for more, I really didn't need to see a sequel. I had seen just enough of those characters and it was perfect for what it was. Simon's convoluted plotting was not the highlight, and that's all that would change in the next play.

It's all a terrible shame, because the work on stage in Brighton Beach is so fine. Laurie Metcalf gives a brave, scary performance as the matriarch, Jessica Hecht is unrecognizable as the wallflower aunt (you can hear her talk about the role in a nice NYT "slideshow"). The two of them engage in some naked emotion and outright ugliness you're not used to seeing in a Neil Simon play. Young Noah Robbins as Eugene is actually the weak link in the cast; he's probably too young as an actor to carry the play. (Broderick was 21 at the time. Robbins is 19 but seems genuinely on the brink of puberty.) But I was happy to focus instead on Santino Fontana, who is very strong as the older brother (as he was as the older brother in Billy Elliot) and, most of all, Dennis Boutsikaris as the father. Boutsikaris gives such an understated and dignified portrayal he somehow moved me to tears constantly. (No, I don't normally cry at the theatre, and hardly at Neil Simon!) I don't know what it was, but he somehow endowed the character with that noble suffering that the immigrant generation went through to give their children a better life. A simple line like, "I never finished the eighth grade," in his delivery, floored me; a poignant reminder of when we didn't take education for granted and that is really wrong to judge someone for lack of one.

So that's just a snippet of what I found worthy. With this on top of Our Town, David Cromer claims the mantle of Master of American Naturalism (successor to Daniel Sullivan, one could say) and gives American (noncelebrity) actors a chance to do on stage the kind of thing they do best.
Too bad so few will get to see his work.

I guess you can thank Broadway and the increasingly clueless producers who still believe in it as a venue of quality.


Esther said...

Thank-you. I felt the same way about Brighton Beach Memoirs. I'm so hearbroken about this. (And I was looking forward to Broadway Bound.)

What I thought was so brilliant was the way David Cromer stripped the play down to its essence: a family struggling to get by during the Depression. Absolutely a Jewish family but devoid of schmaltz.

Some of the same lines that moved you moved me also. I thought Laurie Metcalf got at the strength behind the Jewish mother stereotype. I really enjoyed Noah Robbins, too, so funny and seemed like a real kid.

I'm just glad I had a chance to see it during my trip to New York last weekend.

Ken said...

How sad. I was on the fence about seeing this production (not a huge Simon fan), but now I regret that I'll never getting the chance. I think what David Cromer did with "Our Town" was extraordinary, and I believe you when you say his work was just as interesting here. I wonder if he will stick around New York and try to get another gig, or high-tail it back to Chicago.