PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 16-21: The Battle of Broadway, Part II?

ICYMI   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 16-21: The Battle of Broadway, Part II? The 21st century has not been a lucky one for Broadway so far. After two years of historic trials and near economic disaster, producers may be beginning to wonder if the industry is to be cursed for the next 98.

Sept. 11 handed Times Square perhaps its biggest crisis of all time. It's hard to remember now, but there were about 48 hours there when people wondered if the terrorists' blow to the city might just kill Broadway business indefinitely. The industry rebounded in record time, but still lives week to week, wary of what future national affairs and skittish theatregoers and tourists might hand it.

The year 2003 has been particularly galling. It began with the worst blizzard in seven years. Broadway managed to dig out and go on. Then, earlier this month, the musicians union went on strike after weeks of failed contract talks with producers, something few people expected to happen. The actors and stagehands union joined them—something nobody expected to happen. Broadway shut down for four days, but was saved by the Mayor's intervention before shows suffered serious damage.

It may have all been for naught. The shows that survived the strike by the skin of their teeth may be done in by the war with Iraq. Box office activity fell precipitately following the Gulf War in 1991 and industry professionals do not expect to get out of this conflict without incurring similar losses. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is the first victim. The troubled revival has decided to close on April 6 after seeing a dip in business. Will others follow? It is difficult to gauge how audiences will react. A decade ago, New Yorkers were concerned about the war, but had no fear that it would physically reach their home. Now, a terrorist attack is forever a distinct possibility. Life will perhaps get back to normal, but it'll take more time.

Despite all the political activity in Washington, Baghdad and elsewhere, political drama and satire is sorely lacking in the New York theatre. That situation will be rectified somewhat by the April 29 arrival on Broadway of comedian Bill Maher's new solo show, Victory Begins at Home. Maher famously lost his job on TV's "Politically Incorrect" when he made comments after Sept. 11 which appeared to cast aspersions on the courage of American soldiers. He has since gotten a new show on television and will now bring his brand of stinging topical commentary to the Virginia Theatre.

Other theatres appear to be thinking about the state of the world as well. The Westport Country Playhouse has booked two World War II-themed dramas for their summer season: Arthur Miller's All My Sons and David Wiltse's The Good German. The Williamstown Theatre Festival will lead off its season with a new production of Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera, which has few good things to say about war or human nature in general. So, too, do critics have current events on their mind. The new Off Broadway, Avenue Q, which integrates puppets and humans, all trying to cope with everyday life, opened at the Vineyard Theatre this past week. Most reviewers praised it, many noting that it offered a sort of comfort that theatregoers would keenly need in the days to come. (There is a swipe at George Bush in the show's finale.) In other openings, David Ives' Polish Joke was unveiled at Manhattan Theatre Club, and the musical Zanna, Don't debuted at the John Houseman. They won mixed-to-bad and mixed-to-positive reviews, respectively. In further news, Deaf West Theatre's Ovation Award-winning revival of the musical Big River, a unique production using both hearing and non-hearing actors, will resurface on Broadway with the help of the Roundabout Theatre Company. Previews begin July 1. Jeff Calhoun directs and choreographs.