PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Jan. 31-Feb. 6: Retreat from Broadway

ICYMI   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Jan. 31-Feb. 6: Retreat from Broadway Look at the bright side: now producers hoping to unleash their Broadway shows this spring no longer need worry about the lack of free houses.

Between Feb. 2 and Feb. 4, four Broadway productions announced they would close, victims of the traditional January sales slump, worsened by a particularly chilly winter (with the groundhogs forecasting no end in sight). Three had struggled from the first: the terse William Nicholson drama The Retreat from Moscow, starring Eileen Atkins and John Lithgow; the Jerome Kern musical Never Gonna Dance, which drew its inspiration from the Astaire-Rogers film "Swing Time"; and Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics, which failed to impress many critics or attract audiences despite the bonafides of a Pulitzer Prize.

The fourth folding, Gypsy, was a bit more surprising (its dipping box office notwithstanding), and more than a bit disconcerting, given that the title was a known property, its star (Bernadette Peters) supposedly one of the few bankable ones left and its director (Sam Mendes) among the hottest on the planet. Still, few shows would have been able to completely pull away from the rocky start this one suffered.

As of yet, no show has claimed any of the four theatres these attractions are vacating, but have no fear. No matter how bitter the times (or the weather), producers can't seem to stop themselves from picking themselves up, dusting themselves off, etc.

The Royal National Theatre of London announced a good chunk of the 2004 season, and playwright David Hare was the happier man for it. The scribe, known for his productivity and not unfamiliar with the phenomenon of having more than one play running at any given time, will see three new works produced at the complex on the south bank of the Thames. One work had already been in the news: Hare's play about Britain's railways, The Permanent Way. A second is his new version of Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba. But the work destined to draw the most attention, ire and commentary will doubtless be Stuff Happens, about the war on Iraq. It will premiere in the Olivier—the National's largest house—in September. The play takes its plot from a Donald Rumsfeld-Dick Cheney letter to President Clinton in 1998 which urged America to adopt a new global strategy that should include the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime. (The title comes from Rumsfield's sage summing up of post-Saddam looting in Iraq.) Not that Dick and Don care much what us theatre folk do, but Hare said the drama would "eloquently and passionately occupy both [pro and con] positions" on the war.

Once National audiences are fitted for their Hare-shirts, they can lighten up a bit be taking in a new summer mounting of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, directed by Edward Hall (who has prepared a new adaptation of Camelot for Broadway in the future). Perhaps she has become a bit shy of New York, after the bruising receptions affording her last two plays, An American Daughter and Old Money, but Wendy Wasserstein has quietly unveiled her latest at the low profile Theater J in Washington, DC. The two new one-acts are called Welcome to My Rash and Third. The first concerns a fiction writer confronting a battery of medical maladies, and the hallucination-inducing treatments that accompany them. Third concerns a series of clashes between a veteran professor at a private liberal arts college and her conservative male student.

A few significant plays got underway this week, including Wintertime, Charles L. Mee's latest look at his favorite topic: love. Marsha Mason and Michael Cerveris star in the Second Stage mounting. The worlds of mad Bavarian King Ludwig II and a teenager from 1940s Texas collide in the New York Theatre Workshop's staging of the new Paul Rudnick comedy, Valhalla, which opened Feb. 5. And the Atlantic Theater Company began its look at Howard Korder's latest, Sea of Tranquility, which stars Dylan Baker and Patricia Kalember.

Another show to commence performances was A.R. Gurney's new drama, Big Bill, about one-time tennis titan and 1920s icon "Big Bill" Tilden, at Lincoln Center Theater. There's been much talk lately about prolific young playwright pups like Adam Rapp and Julia Jordan. But they have nothing on 73-year-old Gurney, who already had one production this past fall—Strictly Academic at Primary Stages—and has just announced that Big Bill will be following on March 18 by the Flea Theatre presentation of Mrs. Farnsworth. Both Primary Stages and the Flea saw Gurney plays last season as well (The Fourth Wall and O Jerusalem, respectively). Here's a man who doesn't need the Signature Theatre Company to dedicate its resources to his work; he creates his own all-Gurney season.