PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Dec. 13-19: Mercury Rising

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Dec. 13-19: Mercury Rising What does Broadway want for Christmas? A break, that's what.
Speed-the-Plow star Jeremy Piven
Speed-the-Plow star Jeremy Piven Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Not only is the economy shutting down stumbling shows, and preventing new ones from coming in, cruel fate is bedeviling the few shows that have managed to stay on their feet.

The history of Broadway is replete with outrageous tales of bad behavior, mishaps, accidents, unforeseen circumstances and unexpected reversals of fortune. But room will surely be made in that annal of adversity for what just happened to the hit revival of David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow. The show got great reviews. It was speeding on its way to recoupment. But, then, Poseidon — in mighty vengeance for the human race's having polluted and depleted his oceans — struck. Profligate sushi eater Jeremy Piven, who stars in the comedy, was felled by what was called (by his doctor) high mercury levels in his blood. He informed the producers of Speed-the-Plow — seemingly while on his way to the airport — that he would not be returning to the production, a limited run which was scheduled to go through Feb. 11. The word "abrupt" was invented to describe this departure.

Piven's story was greeted with, shall we say, skepticism by the theatre community. By Friday, the dailies were referring to it, waggishly, as a "fish story." A commenter on the popular message board All That Chat at talkinbroadway.com asked, "I eat a lot of sushi. Do you think I can leave my job early tonight?' Piven had missed performances on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week and, it was reported by his doctor, had collapsed and was hospitalized over the weekend. However, the name of the hospital to which he was taken couldn't be discovered. This physician was Dr. Carlon M. Colker, who runs the Peak Wellness clinic in Greenwich, CT. Colker did all the talking this week for Piven, who as so quiet one might have thought he was on vocal rest. The good doctor backed up the mercury claim; explained Piven's wanton affinity for raw tuna and rice; and affirmed the imminent threat to the actor's health. Colker also asserted many times that the decision that Piven should quit the play was his, not the performer's.

That sounds simple. But simple this story wasn't. Further news reports revealed that Piven had asked to be excused from his contract weeks before the mercury report; that he has been, ahem, fishing around for someone to replace him, phoning actors and casting agents; that he had been staying out late nights and reporting to the Barrymore theatre just as the curtain was rising, not the mandatory 30 minutes before show time.

Producers quickly addressed the highly unusual situation. Within 24 hours, two name actors were drafted to replace Piven. Norbert Leo Butz, a Tony winner for his work in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, will assume the role of Bobby Gould Dec. 23 and play through Jan. 11, 2009. Stage and screen star, and Mamet pal, William H. Macy will play Gould Jan. 13-Feb. 22, 2009. No slouches, these fine actors will certainly bring chops to the Barrymore. But there are concerns that they won't work the magic at the box office that TV star Piven had. If nothing else good comes out of this misadventure, we are at least left with author Mamet's bon mot, one that can compete in wit with anything George S. Kaufman ever uttered. "I talked to Jeremy on the phone and he told me that he discovered that he had a very high level of mercury," Mamet said, blissfully for the record, upon hearing of Piven's exit. "So my understanding is that he is leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer."

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It's conceivable that the Roundabout Theatre Company, producers of the new Broadway revival of Pal Joey, looked at what was going on at the Barrymore this week and thought, "I wish I had their problems."

Since this Joe Mantello-directed production lost its original star, Christian Hoff, to a foot injury, with unknown understudy Matthew Risch then elevated to headliner, Studio 54 has been engulfed by a tornado of rumor and speculation. How troubled was the show? Was it troubled at all? Why did Hoff really leave? Variety, the Post and the Times couldn't stop publishing possible answers to these questions. As for the theatre chat rooms, well, they feed on such meat and are made stronger by it.

But it all comes down to reviews in the end, and the theatre must have been pleasantly surprised by the assessment that arrived Friday morning. Some notices were negative, called the show lifeless and unimaginative. But just as many (maybe more) found it suitable, with enough wit, style and entertainment to satisfy. The great Rodgers and Hart score is there, they remarked, and Richard Greenberg's trenchant new book to boot. There were good words for stars Risch and Channing, and across-the-board praise for the unforeseen musical talents of Martha Plimpton. If Roundabout can't exactly chalk this one up in the win column, they can at least call it a draw.

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The producers of the big new Broadway musical Shrek, which opened this week, found themselves in a similar position. Not all reviewers loved the production. Some thought it earthbound and less than inspired. But enough discovered fair amounts of charm and entertainment in the movie-inspired fairy tale story, with a score by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics and book by David Lindsay-Abaire. Of the stars, perennial favorite Sutton Foster was blown the most kisses.

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Off-Broadway producer Scott Morfee is at it again, importing shows from his favorite town: Chicago. He will bring in the acclaimed Windy City production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town in spring 2009, it was reported, putting it in his Barrow Street Theatre. The decision was perhaps influenced by a recent New York Times article that praised the show's director, David Cromer, as one of the best stage pilots going. Of course, Morfee already knew Cromer as the director of such past Morfee productions as The Adding Machine and Orson's Shadow.

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