PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 4-10: True Hit

News   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 4-10: True Hit Sam Shepard had a chance at Broadway success a few seasons back, when the Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago brought in Gary Sinise's production of Buried Child. Sinise was then basking in new-found film fame, giving the production an added cachet. And Shepard had done some new work on the Pulitzer-winning script. The cast was solid and the reviews were good. But the audiences never materialized and the play closed in a few months.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in True West; Andrew Lloyd Webber; Natalie Portman.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in True West; Andrew Lloyd Webber; Natalie Portman. (Photo by <i>True West</i> photo by Joan Marcus; Natalie Portman by Frank W. Ockenfels)

Sam Shepard had a chance at Broadway success a few seasons back, when the Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago brought in Gary Sinise's production of Buried Child. Sinise was then basking in new-found film fame, giving the production an added cachet. And Shepard had done some new work on the Pulitzer-winning script. The cast was solid and the reviews were good. But the audiences never materialized and the play closed in a few months.

In light of that experience, bringing True West, a work written around the same time as Buried Child, to Broadway seemed like folly, even if Matthew Warchus was directing and Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly were starring. All three are very talented, but none of them are marquee names. Plus, memories of the famous 1982 Gary Sinise-John Malkovich production were yet strong in theatregoer's minds. But then, with the announcement that Hoffman and Reilly were going to alternate the roles of sparring brothers Lee and Austin, interest in the production started to grow. Then, buzz from the previews proved unrelentingly good.

Finally, with the March 9 opening, the reviews came in, nearly all euphorically positive, and, this time, it looks like Sam Shepard may have his very first commercial Broadway hit -- almost 40 years after first entering the playwriting racket. Of course, there's always the chance that crowds will stay away in droves, as they did with Buried Child. But, in the role-switching gambit, the show appears to possess the ticket to success. Not only does the gimmick provoke interest among those less than curious about Shepard (or straight plays in general), it will doubtless inspire Shepard fans to see the play twice. (For those making such plans, a schedule of who's playing what part on which nights can be found on the Telecharge website.)

The critical success of True West also presents the Tony people with several conundrums. Should Hoffman and/or Reilly be considered for their performances as Lee or Austin? Or for their performances as Lee and Austin? Or should the two actors get a single nomination, a la Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner in Side Show? Furthermore, is True West, a stranger to Broadway, a new play? Expect heated lobbying from Messrs. Ron Kastner and Roy Gabay, the show's producers.

Stage fans who miss the talents of Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and Mike Nichols -- all of whom began their careers in the theatre -- may be able to assuage their feelings of loss this summer. Playbill On-Line discovered that Streep and Kline are in talks to play Arkadina and Trigorin in a new production of Chekhov's The Seagull, directed by Nichols, who never returns to the boards but to direct the biggest of names. Nichols is also courting Natalie Portman for the role of Nina, and some sources say that the whole project hinges on her saying yes. (Cut loose Streep and Kline on the whim of Queen Amidala? Hm.) If the whole thing goes through, it's bound to cause the biggest fuss at the Delacorte since Michelle Pfeiffer, Gregory Hines, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Gregory Hines all did Twelfth Night a decade ago. Andrew Lloyd Webber held a press conference this week in, of all places, Bombay, India. There, he announced his intention to co-produce a new musical inspired by Indian films and written by Indian music director A.R. Rehman. Lloyd Webber is apparently a devotee of "Bollywood," the Bombay-based film industry which turns out more product than Hollywood itself. The musical, as yet unnamed, will debut in the West End.

While in Bombay, Lloyd Webber also briefly commented that Antonio Banderas had been tentatively selected to play the title role in the film of The Phantom of the Opera -- a piece of casting which has been rumored for years, and which has angered thousands of Michael Crawford fans, but which has never before passed Lloyd Webber's lips.

There hasn't been a peep from the National Actors Theatre since Night Must Fall, the company's last show, closed last summer. But Tony Randall, the troupe's founder, continues to work. He'll play Applegate in a new production of Damn Yankees at Houston's Theatre Under the Stars, beginning March 21.

Back in New York, Nicky Silver's latest, The Altruists, opened at the Vineyard Theatre on March 6; Michael Hollinger's comedy, An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf, with George Wendt, opened at Primary Stages on March 8; and Manhattan Theatre Company's The Wild Party, extended a week until April 9. Meanwhile, a new show called Game Show seems poised to cash in on the current quiz-show mania enveloping the country. Written by Jeffrey Finn and Bob Walton, and taking a page from the Tony n' Tina's Wedding brand of theatre, the project involves audience participation, real prizes and the simulation of a television taping. A March 16-17 workshop will take place at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. (Does anyone feel sorry for this corporate plaything of a theatre? If SFX's stock swap with Clear Channel Communications goes through, the Ford Centre will have its third owner in less than 30 months.)

Birdy, the Naomi Wallace drama based on William Wharton's novel, has given up on its hopes to reach Broadway this spring. The reason? The same one given by any other of a dozen shows recently trumpeted as Broadway-bound: THERE ARE NO THEATRES. (Honestly, the endless talk about this play and that play transferring to Broadway seems akin to last fall's serious discussion of the Trump presidency.) For now, Birdy is testing its mettle at Duke University's Reynolds Industrial Theatre in Durham, North Carolina, with Grant Show in the cast.

Finally, the Squonk watch. This week's report: Squonk lives, despite playing to under 30 percent capacity, and all suitors of the Helen Hayes Theatre -- and there are many -- remain at bay.

--By Robert Simonson