PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 27-April 2: Unlikely Bright Spots

ICYMI   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 27-April 2: Unlikely Bright Spots It's been a pretty grim season Off-Broadway, financially and critically. Successes have been few and far between, and those few have, for the most part, come from the unlikeliest of corners. Burnished names like Lucas, Korder, Silver, Gurney and Rebeck failed to guarantee admiring reviews. And bankable names like DiPietro and Simon did not draw crowds. Instead, critics were won over by less trumpeted fare created by artists not typically thought of as players in the New York scene.

Sarah Jones' new Off-Broadway solo show bridge and tunnel seems to please all who see it, and has launched the hitherto respected but little-known performance artist to a new level. She recently broke box office records at the 45 Bleecker Street Theater in single day sales, raking in almost $65,000 in tickets. Lisa Kron's autobiographical, format-tweaking Well (which opened this week), too, found almost no detractors, exceeding the reception afforded her last work, 2.5 Minute Ride. An extension for Well was announced within days of the reviews.

Chicago playwright Tracy Letts snuck into town a few years back with Killer Joe and ended up with a sleeper hit. Now history has repeated itself with Letts' Bug, which nobody was very excited about until it opened at the Barrow Street Theatre and critics had to remind themselves how to write a rave review. Expectations were also modest for MCC Theatre's Frozen, a three-person play about child abduction by a British playwright of whom no one had heard. Now money has feverishly being gathered for a move to Broadway.

Embedded, a hastily-written political satire about the war in Iraq written by actor Tim Robbins, was a hit for his Actors' Gang company in L.A., and crossed the country to New York's Public Theater, where poor reviews couldn't stop it from extending twice and generally selling out.

Other, quieter hits of the season include Lisa Loomer's Living Out at Second Stage, Paula Vogel's The Long Christmas Ride Home at the Vineyard Theatre, and the revival of Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon at The New Group. The latter two extended. Broadway transfers were rumored for the first two; neither move transpired.

*** Opening on April Fool's Day was Sly Fox, a revival of the 1976 Larry Gelbart take on Volpone. Back then Arthur Penn directed, George C. Scott starred and Bob Dishy won a Tony nomination. Twenty-eight years later, only Scott is not part of the recipe. (Even the show's logo and set and costumes are modified repeats of the '76 staging.) Instead, Richard Dreyfuss headlines the affair, a show that seems to want to be a delicious, bigger-than-life comedy about greed. Newsday, The Daily News and The Post embraced the effort, though Variety and Ben Brantley at The New York Times wanted that thing that most defines greed — more, as in more passionate choices from the company of character actors.

You decide.

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Another Broadway show, Bombay Dreams, began previews March 27. Originally produced in London by Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Really Useful Company, the Broadway production is being presented by Waxman Williams Entertainment and TGA Entertainment. With a score by A. R. Rahman, lyrics by Don Black and a revised book by Thomas Meehan and Myra Syal, Bombay Dreams tells the story like no other in town: a young slum-dweller in India dreams of becoming a Bollywood movie star, succeeds, falls in love with a girl from a different class, loses himself, suffers tragedy, becomes a hero and gets the girl. (If you changed the locale to Hollywood or New York, however, the story's probably been told a million times over.)

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On April 1, the biggest backstage show of the spring began when Actors' Equity Association, which represents nearly every performer on Broadway, and the League of American Theatres and Producers, which houses and backs the shows that employ those actors, sat down to hammer out a new pact. What's at stake is the Production Contract, which governs Broadway and road show work, and is the most lucrative union deal in American theatre. The current agreement is due to expire June 27. All the big producers are involved, even those who have bolted from or never joined the League, such as the Dodgers and Disney. This is thanks to a process called "coordinate bargaining." Why such solidarity? Because the major bone of contention at this talk feast is a meaty one: the future of non-Equity national tours.

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You can imagine a cult of musical theatre fans lining up at the box office for Here Lies Jenny, a new musical entertainment being created by Roger Rees, Ann Reinking and starring Bebe Neuwirth. Why a cult? Because the new show that uses the music of Kurt Weill will play 11 PM Thursdays-Saturdays May 6-July 24 at The Zipper Theatre. Do more people than a cult go out after 10 PM? The producers are hoping so. The Zipper was home to the Alan Cumming hit, Elle, so cults can prove profitable.

Experimentation and exploration are expected to be keys to this show's developmental process at the Off-Broadway Zipper on West 37th. Neuwirth plays Jenny, a bedraggled dame who finds herself in a dive (or, if you will, "the next whiskey bar," as Brecht and Weill once wrote), swaying uneasily to the music of her life — with lyrics by Brecht, Ira Gershwin, Alan Jay Lerner, Langston Hughes, Ogden Nash and more.

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Finally, English man of the theatre Peter Ustinov died in the past week. The polyglot and bon vivant was a long-running show all in himself. He wrote plays, then cast himself in them, directed his performance, often produced, even wrote songs. He did it again and again, in theatre and film, with frequent success. And he executed it all with aplomb, good humor and wit. Similar animals preceded him. Noel Coward, Orson Welles, George M. Cohan. Will more follow him? Unlikely.