PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Dec. 11-17: The Hayes Office

ICYMI   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Dec. 11-17: The Hayes Office Well, Thwak! may be closing, but Squonk lives. (Has anyone thought of putting these two odd and oddly titled shows on a double bill?) Squonk's Bigsmorgasbordwunderwerk, as PBOL recently revealed, is the latest claimant to Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre, which will become vacant Dec. 19 when Epic Proportions shutters.

Well, Thwak! may be closing, but Squonk lives. (Has anyone thought of putting these two odd and oddly titled shows on a double bill?) Squonk's Bigsmorgasbordwunderwerk, as PBOL recently revealed, is the latest claimant to Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre, which will become vacant Dec. 19 when Epic Proportions shutters.

Theatregoers may have thought they had heard the last of Squonk. The performance piece received good notices but closed at P.S. 122 four months ago and hasn't been heard from since. But one must never count out the Helen Hayes. Neither a Shubert house, nor a Nederlander nor a Jujamcyn, the 499-seat Hayes is owned by lone wolf Martin Markinson, who has, of late, made a practice out of confounding Broadway prognosticators' expectations. It was Markinson, after all, who stirred up a minor tempest in a teapot last fall when he passed on Margaret's Edson's Wit -- surely the most praised play of the last couple years -- in order to book Band in Berlin, a peculiar blend of crooning and documentary which ran all of 36 performances.

(There was a curious irony to Berlin 's victory. Earlier that fall, the musical was due to move into Union Square Theatre, but was thwarted when Visiting Mr. Green suddenly opted to extend its run at that Off-Broadway house. In attaining the Hayes, Berlin beat out its main competitor for the theatre, Wit, sending that show to -- where else? -- the Union Square Theatre.)

But the Hayes never lacks for suitors, and when Berlin died, the battle for the house began anew, with some people saying Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn's musical By Jeeves and others saying, again, Wit. Almost nobody was saying Night Must Fall, the National Actors Theatre revival of the Emyln Williams thriller which was already playing a limited run at the Lyceum and whose star, Matthew Broderick, was expected to leave on schedule to honor another commitment. But Broderick shed that commitment and stayed with the NAT, and Night Must Fall played another two months at the cozy Hayes.

So, Squonk may not be what people expected to see at the Hayes, but its booking is entirely in character with the theatre's recent history. Speaking of Broderick, the actor will be back on Broadway this season in Elaine May's latest, Taller Than a Dwarf, which will begin previews at the Longacre March 31, 2000. Broderick will star as half of a couple with indie film starlet Parker Posey. May's old pal, Alan Arkin, will direct.

In an era when name actors shed the duties of their limited run stage gigs as soon as possible, Bebe Neuwirth seems to be a breed apart. This woman apparently will never get tired of playing murderous vixen Velma Kelly, the Chicago part that won her a Tony Award. Neuwirth originated the role in the Broadway revival back in fall of 1996, and -- amazingly, given that she was the show's name star and is, one would assume, in demand -- stuck with the show until Sept. 8, 1998, when Ute Lemper took over. But when Lemper fell ill in January 1999, Neuwirth returned for a two-week stint. And after Lemper left for good, Bebe played Velma again, from February 20 to April 4.

Now, word comes that Bebe's back in town once more. Chicago will have its original Velma Kelly back beginning Jan. 18, 2000. It should be noted that Neuwirth has played other roles in the meantime -- Taming of the Shrew in Williamstown, Three Penny Opera in San Francisco. But, all in all, Bebe seems to be a Kelly girl.

Conversely, it appears Ally Sheedy couldn't wait to leave her starring role in off-Broadway's Hedwig and the Angry Inch. She and the producers parted company Dec. 12, nearly two months before her contract was up. The New York Post has reported that Sheedy's performances have become increasingly erratic and ad-libbed, with the actress tired of the role and the producers happy to see her go. Kevin Cahoon is back in the wig until a replacement is named. Meanwhile, Hedwig had even worse news in L.A., where the recently-opened production will close this weekend, reportedly losing its entire $600,000 investment.

A slew of recent events served to remind us that the film genius Orson Welles had perhaps, an even more glorious history in the theatre. News came this week of the deaths of two of Welles' associates at the famed Mercury Theatre of the late 1930's. Bronx native John Berry made his stage debut in 1937 in Welles' legendary production of Julius Ceasar. Berry, who died on Nov. 29 in Paris, went on to act in Welles' Native Son and later established himself as a film and theatre director. Sam Leve was also involved in Julius Ceasar, designing the production, as well as Orson's production of The Shoemaker's Holiday. Leve, who died Dec. 6, also designed sets and costumes for a play called Revolt of the Beavers, a piece that figures prominently in Tim Robbins' recently released, partly fictionalized film, "Cradle Will Rock," about the Federal Theatre Project, a company helmed by a very young Welles (played in the movie by Angus McFadyen).

Another Broadway personality passed away this week. You probably don't know his name and, if you passed him in the street, you wouldn't recognize him. But Douglas Leigh is arguably one of the people most responsible for making Times Square and Broadway what it is today. He wasn't an actor, producer, playwright, or even a critic. His artistic palette was the neon-festooned billboard, a symbol as synonymous with Times Square as is the Broadway play.

He came from Alabama and proceeded to coat the buildings of Broadway and Seventh Avenue from 42nd to 47 streets will signs. Among his most famous creations were the steaming, stories-high A & P coffee mug, the Pepsi-Cola waterfall of light, and -- his piece de resistance -- the Camel Cigarette sign that blew real smoke rings. These days, Times Square has more signage than at any time in its history; and though the current effect may be more Las Vegas than New York, the area's aesthetic personality owes an undeniable debt to Leigh. After all, new buildings and businesses in Times Square no longer choose to front their edifices with attention- getting neon; such signage is now required by law, ensuring that the spirit of Leigh, that showman without a show, will not die anytime soon.