Audiences Scream, Critics Groan, But Pielmeier's Voices Goes On

News   Audiences Scream, Critics Groan, But Pielmeier's Voices Goes On Maybe it's the Jewish holidays, maybe it's the end-of-summer blues. Whatever, the two weeks following Labor Day are traditionally two of the worst weeks financially for Broadway shows. Numbers on grosses and attendance, supplied weekly by the League of American Theatres and Producers, showed many productions taking serious dips either one or both of the first two full weeks of September.

Maybe it's the Jewish holidays, maybe it's the end-of-summer blues. Whatever, the two weeks following Labor Day are traditionally two of the worst weeks financially for Broadway shows. Numbers on grosses and attendance, supplied weekly by the League of American Theatres and Producers, showed many productions taking serious dips either one or both of the first two full weeks of September.

A couple of the hardest hit shows -- including Kat And The Kings, Ragtime and Annie Get Your Gun -- did show significant boosts Sept. 13-19 over the previous week, but Voices in the Dark continues to fight for audiences in the shadow of poor reviews and the lingering perception that thrillers on Broadway are somehow old hat. For the week ending Sept. 12, the show grossed $114,607, down more than $25,000 from the previous week. By Sept. 19, grosses were down to $91,719, with attendance at only 27.99 percent of capacity.

That said, a production spokesperson told Playbill On-Line (Sept. 21) the producers believe in the show, and there are no plans to close. In fact, the Shubert Organization, which owns the Longacre Theatre and has the right to invoke a "stop" clause if the show under-performs for several weeks in a row, have apparently assured the producers that they can run Voices "as long as they choose."

Asked about the show's battle for box office bucks, co-star Raphael Sbarge told Playbill On-Line, "From what I understand, when Chris [director Christopher Ashley] knew we were coming to Broadway, he said, `Read the reviews for Sleuth and Deathtrap. Both plays got really terrible reviews.' Thrillers are aimed at audiences, not for critical response. They're fun. The audience screams and yells. Though thrillers are carefully crafted, they're not targeted for critical acceptance. Plus we have gotten some good reviews, including one in the weekly listings of The New Yorker."

Continued Sbarge, "People grab me after the show and say `I loved this show.' I've been in shows that are fondly referred to as turkeys. But this doesn't even have that feeling. It's hard to get people to get off their asses and come see things, but we have had strong audiences and great response, and really good producers who say this is a great show. They put money into it to help it find its audience." Sbarge pointed out that the post-Labor Day period is, indeed, a rough one for shows. "These two weeks right now are really bad, bad weeks for Broadway," he said. "Death of a Salesman was just up on TKTS. It's hard to determine how a show's going at this time, but we're cautiously optimistic. Once we get into October, they hope to feel confident in it till the end of the year -- and I know we're running through the end of October."

On the plus side, Sbarge enumerated a few things in the show's favor: "Not a lot of plays are opening, and it's the first play of the new season." The only other show has been the musical revue, Kat And The Kings, which is also struggling but has seen grosses and attendance rise the past two weeks. Both Sbarge and spokespersons for Voices pointed out that producers continue to run print and television ads for the thriller.

Still, Voices in the Dark has to fight the perception that movies and TV have become the preferred realm for scream-of-the-week melodramas. "In the 30s and 40s," Sbarge said, "thrillers were the mainstay of Broadway. This was obviously before you could turn on the TV and find a lot of them there. But Voices is a new-fashioned way of bringing this experience to an audience -- which is another character in the show. It's the theatre equivalent of `Jaws' but something you can't get in a movie or video store... When Chris was rehearsing the play at the George Street Playhouse before it came to Broadway, he saw the structure of a scream - and it's not too different from structuring a laugh. There are nights when the screams are so enormous, it's almost overwhelming. You have to stop and hold the reins of the horse really tight. From an acting point of view it's thrilling and really fun. People say, `Oh my God, you scared the s--t out of me! Which means we did our job."

Voices in the Dark began previews at the Longacre Theatre Aug. 1 and opened there Aug. 12. Two-time Tony Award winning actress Judith Ivey (Hurlyburly and Steaming) stars as a radio talk show host who finds herself menaced by a mysterious caller while staying in an isolated Adirondack cabin.

Including her two Tony Award-winning roles, Ivey's extensive Broadway credits include Bedroom Farce, Piaf, Blithe Spirit, Precious Sons and Park Your Car in Harvard Yard (Tony nomination).

Pielmeier's other works include Agnes of God, Willi, which he appeared in at Seattle's ACT in 1991; Steeple Chase, The Boys of Winter and Impassioned Embraces.

Sbarge (Broadway's Curse of an Aching Heart and Twilight of the Golds) co-stars, alongside Off-Broadway veteran Zach Grenier (A Question of Mercy, Rhinoceros and CSC Rep's Creditors), John Ahlin, Peter Bartlett (The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told), Nicole Fonarow, Tom Stechschulte and Lenny Blackburn. Ahlin, Bartlett and Fonarow were among the cast when the show premiered at NJ's George Street Playhouse in 1998. The play was originally directed by Pielmeier himself back in October 1994 at Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre. Voices also had a pre-Broadway engagement at Stamford, CT's Rich Forum, running July 16-25 before the move to the Longacre.

Designing Voices are David Gallo (set), David C. Woolard (costumes) and Donald Holder (lighting). For tickets and information, call Telecharge (212) 239-6200.

-- By David Lefkowitz & Sean McGrath