The Playgoer: Memo to Roundabout

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Memo to Roundabout

Hello Todd Haimes,

What a way to end a season, huh?  Canceling your big Spring opening--in your flagship venue--two weeks before previews after one of your stars quits.  And here you are with about a month to find another show that's ready to load in and get on, if you're not going to lose subscribers who have already paid for a ticket to...something?  And if you're not going to leave your American Airlines Theatre on Broadway dark during Tony season.

Not that a big Broadway revival of a mild twenty-year-old Terence McNally comedy was what the New York theatre was crying out for in the first place.  (But hey, Manhattan Theatre Club is devoting their mainstage to supersizing a fifteen-year-old Donald Margules play that no one was clamoring to see again either.  Misery loves company, I guess.)  And not that the strategy of casting such "stars" as, um, mid-level Comedy Central comic Patton Oswalt and sitcom second banana Megan Mullally was quite "money in the bank," either.

So look on the bright side: Ms. Mullally's sudden weird departure (reportedly over disapproval of her even lesser known co-star) perhaps has spared you the collective shrug that might well have greeted this production--as enjoyable as director Joe Mantello might have made it.

Here you are, the richest, biggest nonprofit theatrical enterprise in not only the city, but probably(?) the country. You now have three--count 'em, three--Broadway venues attracting automatic media attention whatever you put on there, plus a sizeable and very prominent Off Broadway space.  How have you decided to use those precious resources this year?

On the classy side, you did have a Miss Julie (in Patrick Marber's Brit-appeal update).  Your recent Noel Coward fluff Present Laughter (remounted from Boston's Huntington) I heard did quite well and pleased many.  Too bad it just closed in the AA, since an extension of that would have solved this problem nicely.  But maybe you can move in the very well-reviewed Glass Menagerie (imported from Long Wharf) you just opened in your Off B'way space?  The fact that all three are either plays and/or productions from elsewhere may not look great artistically, but at least with these projects you've fulfilled probably your most successful role as a decent touring house.

But then there was Wishful Drinking, another import, where you surrendered another of your B'way venues (Studio 54) to cheap one-woman show featuring a one-step-from-reality-show Hollywood ex-star telling naughty stories about Star Wars.  (Personally, I would rather you book this guy.)  Now in the same theatre you have a very expensive Sondheim tribute show show, which would seem like a low-rent cabaret if not for Steve talking on a video screen throughout.

Then there was Birdie.  You moved mountains to get yourself yet a third Broadway venue--on the site of the old Henry Miller's, but completely rebuilt and custom made for you (and now renamed, what else, the Sondheim!)--and your master plan for it was to open Bye Bye Birdie there and just let it run forever.  Unfortunately, a miscast production, critic-nauseating cheesiness, and your inability to find two actors in the whole wide world who could take over the leads in Bye Bye freakin' Birdie after January...forced you to close ahead of schedule.  Leaving you with a dark theatre until you put it up for rent and in came Dame Edna and Michael Feinstein.  And we all know how that's going. (67% capacity so far isn't so bad, I guess, so let's hope they can at least pay their rent.)

I would say the Roundabout seems downright Job-like this season given such fortunes.  But then I think of all that you didn't do with your enviable real estate this year.  Think of all the playwrights with new plays (no, not just Theresa Rebeck) you could have gotten out there.  Think of all the, ahem, qualified stage actors that could have taken lead roles and wowed the Broadway audiences with their talent if not their names.  I mean, these may not have been advisable box office decisions strategically, but...can you say Plan A worked out either?

In other words: What have you got to lose?  You've still got your four swank theatres--nay, five if you include your little blackbox, originally meant for edgier new plays, but now you're renting out even that!  (and to this oddity, no less)

I can just imagine some ambitious producer out there reading this, salivating at the mouth with dreams of what to fill those stages with, and saying with resolve to his or her computer screen: "Mr. Haimes, if you're not gonna use them five stages to produce some actual dramatic events, step aside.  I will."

There's still time for Roundabout 2.0, Todd.  What do you say?


chelsea.e.jones said...

Well said!

Mr. K said...

I mostly agree with what you said, but I'd say Patton Oswalt is a little more than some Comedy Central also-ran. He seems to be building quite a bit of cred as a character actor (on Caprica & Dollhouse), and he was just in "Big Fan", the screenwriter behind "The Wrestler"'s directorial debut.

I know it doesn't mean he'd be a good stage actor, but credit where credit is due.

Playgoer said...

You're right, K., I shouldn't harsh on Oswalt so. Especially since I don't know his work. (I did like him in his small role in The Informer, tho.) I meant "mid-level" in fame, not talent.

My point actually wasn't to dis HIM per se. Hey, if they thing he's genuinely the best actor for the role, then fine. But I sure hope they didn't go out of their way to cast him because he'd be some super-draw.

Then again, sounds like YOU might at least buy a ticket to see him, Mr. K!

RLewis said...

Dude, you’re on a roll! All I can think of is poor Gene Feist - he did some of the best mediocre classics, but he never seemed destine to go off the highest cliff.

This reminds me of a plan floated by LIT's real estate committee: as big theaters scale back, why not offer them some of the best of indie theater to fill their open slots. Gatz and Bloody Andrew Jackson already have homes now, but how about some options for this Roundabout slot...

Angel’s Mixtape; Creature; Chautauqua!; Hostage Song; Viral; Chekhov Lizardbrain; Frequency Hopping; Lee/Gendary; Blasted; Infectious Opportunity; Riding the Bull; Machines, Machines, Machines; Night Sky; Our Country; Slipping; Telephone; The Amish Project; The Event; The Lily’s Revenge; Trifles; Aliens with Extraordinary Skills; Traces/Fades name but only a very, very few of the terrific shows we could fit into Roundabout's theater right now and under budget.

Unknown said...

Very nicely said, PG. Someone has to start taking these large theaters to task, though in the end, my outsider perspective is that New Yorkers love tossing money at things other people will recognize, like big name theater companies.

And in defense of Oswalt, he does have quite a bit of experience, including a long run on King of Queens (+ Big Fan). But more importantly, for a while now, he has been one of the few comedians to base an act on exploring the political landscape (plus Star Wars). No reason to think that a intelligent stand up performer can't match that gal from Frankenstein & Grace. If anything, it highlights the way in which live, non-theater performers are given secondary status (i.e., sketch, improv, stand-up).

Unknown said...

New plays would be great, but let's be honest with ourselves: that's not Roundabout's mission and it never has been. Now, Roundabout could at least grace us with relevant, probing, and just all around spicier work like when Journey's End was produced or the upcoming A Few Good Men from Ken Davenport. You kind of stuff.

Playgoer said...

Update 3/30/10: As noted in a later post, Roundabout is actually considering filling the "Lips/Teeth" slot with yet another one-woman autobiogrphical show (Sheri Renee Scott's which premiered Off Broadway last year at a rival nonprofit, Second Stage.) Talk about cheap.

Plus, as of today they still have the balls to ask subscribers to renew solely based on two announced titles: Brian Bedford's "Importance of Being Earnest" and a new Julia Cho play.

Playgoer said...

Oh, and one more update: Roundabout's tenant for their Henry Miller's/Stephen Sondheim space--"All About Me"--is suddenly closing this Sunday, April 4th.

So that will leave TWO of their three Broadway houses empty.

(Maybe they should move their Sondheim revue from Studio 54 to...the Sondheim!)