PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Feb. 21-27: Off the Hook?

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Feb. 21-27: Off the Hook? When all is said and done, the biggest theatre news story of the 2008-09 season may also be the weirdest.
Jeremy Piven
Jeremy Piven Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Since Jeremy Piven bolted his starring gig in Broadway's Speed-the-Plow, citing mercury poisoning from excessive fish-eating, the bizarre story has refused to die. Seldom has a week passed without some new report on the subject, which has long kept the gossip mill spinning at a frightful rate. Here we are at the end of February and the papers are still full of it.

This was the week that producers got their day in court. In January, the backers of the show filed a grievance against Piven with Actors' Equity Association. The hearing was held on Feb. 26, forcing the L.A. actor back to Times Square — probably the last place on Earth he wants to show his face.

The hearing was headed by a committee of five members of Actors' Equity and five members of the Broadway League. The result was about as bipartisan as an average vote in Congress: The Equity members all sided with Piven and the League reps sided with the producers of the Mamet play. The upshot: no action was taken against Piven, though the producers still have the option of pursuing the matter further.

By the Friday morning, the news was out, reported in typical fashion according to the style of the Gotham's papers. "After Exit From Play Gets No Penalty, Piven Gives Tearful Account," read the New York Times headline. "'FISHY' PIVEN DRAMA," read the New York Post headline. The Times won the interview of the day, getting a 20-minute sit-down with Piven (and his publicist) after the hearing. The "Entourage" actor quoted Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ("no lie can last forever"); clarified that his condition resulted from eating too much fish, not necessarily too much sushi, as has been widely reported; denied having exhausted himself by too much partying after shows; offered the grisly detail that he had recently "underwent a six-hour procedure to have mercury extracted from the fillings in his left teeth, and will be taking care of the right teeth soon" (yeesh!); and said he would like to work on Broadway again — "I kind of can't wait to do it again. And I hope to."

The Post, which did not interview Piven, put the actor's chances at returning to Broadway this way: "Piven, who claims his blood-mercury level rose to five times the normal range, is virtually unhirable on Broadway today, sources said. His stage acting career sleeps with the fishes." UPDATE: What did I say? The saga will not end. By the end of Feb. 27, producers of the play announced they would seek arbitration. A statement released by the show's producers said, "The grievance went as expected yesterday. The grievance committee (made up of League and Equity representatives) did not rule for either side and we will be filing for arbitration as provided by our contract."

It is the story that will not die.

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If Broadway hadn't been so distracted by the Piven melodrama, it might have spent more time bugging its collective eyes out at a City Hall plan that could, in one fell swoop, completely change the character of Times Square.

The traffic-hating New York City Mayor Michael ("Congestion Pricing") Bloomberg, who has never shied away from a civic vision that would leave his stamp on the town, introduced a scheme to close five blocks of Broadway, to 42nd to 47th streets.

The blocks would become a pedestrian mall, with café tables, umbrellas, planters and room for cyclists and foot traffic. Seventh Avenue, which runs somewhat parallel to Broadway at Times Square, would take on the major southbound traffic burden. Cross streets would continue to be open, feeding the theatre district.

The experiment, called "Green Light for Manhattan," which will continue to the end of the year, may become permanent if it's successful.

It's about time. Tourists have almost completely run out of room on the square's sidewalks.

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Producers of one of the more promising prospects for Broadway smashhood — the musical The Addams Family, inspired by the macabre characters created by illustrator Charles Addams — have announced its New York dates. It will begin previews at a Broadway theatre to be announced March 5, 2010. The production will open on Broadway April 8, 2010. The musical will make its world premiere Nov. 13, 2009-Jan. 10, 2010, at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre in Chicago, prior to Broadway. No casting has been announced for the show — which has a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa — but Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth were in readings and workshops.

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The Alliance Theatre's world premiere of geeky-titled new show, iSondheim: aMusical Revue, wasn't as fortunate. It was scheduled to begin performances April 15 at the Atlanta venue, but has now been canceled. In its place the regional theatre will present another revue, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. The production, according to the Alliance website, was canceled because of "difficulties encountered by the commercial producers attached to the project, the Frankel/Viertel/Baruch/Routh group, in raising the necessary funds for the multi-media musical revue of [Stephen] Sondheim's life and career."

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Last week, I reported on two openings — Mourning Becomes Electra at The New Group, and The Story of My Life on Broadway at the Booth — that were beaten up by the critics. Well, the whippings had their impact. Mourning Becomes Electra will close earlier than expected, on March 1. And The Story of My Life gave up the fight on Feb. 22, two days after the notices came out, and after only five official performances. Soon after, Broadway-bound Next to Normal saw its opportunity and moved from its planned home at the Longacre to the more intimate Booth.

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The big opening of the week was the David Cromer-directed production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which was encouraged to make the leap from Chicago to Off-Broadway after an encouraging review and then a follow-up profile of Cromer by the New York Times' Charles Isherwood. Isherwood repeated his praise in his New York notice, as did many other critics. Among the playful headlines: "It's a Town Without Pity"; "It's Our Kind of Town"; and "A Walk on the Wilder Side."

Jena Malone and Lili Taylor in <i>Mourning Becomes Electra</i>
Jena Malone and Lili Taylor in Mourning Becomes Electra Photo by Monique Carboni
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