The Critics Savored Their Drink From Well, But Can You Lead Crowds to It?

News   The Critics Savored Their Drink From Well, But Can You Lead Crowds to It? Hoping to goose theatregoers into getting tickets for Well, the Broadway comedy by Lisa Kron, producers have announced "last weeks" for the production in the New York Times' ABC ads.

Lisa Kron in Well.
Lisa Kron in Well. Photo by Joan Marcus

Those two dire words could be dropped from ads if sales pick up, Playbill.com learned. Despite a love letter from the New York Times, an embrace from Newsday and kisses from Variety, Well hasn't sparked instant, passionate interest from Broadway audiences this spring, even though there is speculation that come Tony Award time in May it may well be a Best Play nominee.

According to the League of American Theatres and Producers, for the week ending April 16 (the play's second full week following its March 30 opening at the Longacre Theatre), Well played to 32.33 percent of capacity, grossing a lean $120,324.

The comedy about mothers, daughters, health, wellness, community, racism and more is something of a mystery when it comes to figuring out how to sell it to the public, producer Elizabeth Ireland McCann told Playbill.com. She admits that Well — which has audiences laughing and crying (and some baffled by its self-deprecating uniqueness) — is hard to define. How do you pigeonhole something that is singular? How do you explain that Lisa Kron is playing herself in what she bills (as she reads note cards on stage) a "theatrical exploration"? And what is to be made of that doughy woman she calls her mother, who wallows in a La-Z-Boy stage left?

"That is, I think, always a bit of problem with Well…it's a very hard play to describe," McCann said in the days following a positive review in The Times, which usually results in a spike in ticket sales. There was indeed a post-review box office spark, she said, but it clearly was not wildfire, as office reports now indicate.

She added that this season's Shining City or Festen — or her recent Broadway Tony Award-winning project, Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? — are also hard to describe. "I've never been quite sure how [audiences] find out what a play is about except by word of mouth," McCann said.

What about the "money quotes" the play has earned from some critics?

"I don't believe, as some of my colleagues do, that critics' quotes in and of themselves is sufficient," she said. "Under every marquee on Broadway you'll see an undersling, it goes up right after the review comes out. If you look around, almost all the underslings say the same thing: 'Brilliant!' -Ben Brantley. I once concocted a theory that I could buy all the underslings at the end of the season and sell 'em back, because they definitely would be usable — I wouldn't even have to paint over them. [Ben Brantley's] gonna say 'Brilliant' about something. I don't think we realize the public is usually way ahead of us."

In the life of producing any play, McCann said, "you spend the preview period just getting the play ready, and then you spend the next week recovering from getting the play in shape and then you settle down to figuring out what you're going to do next. I think we have a lot of arrows to our little bow, and we're gonna keep shooting them."

The theatrical, comically experimental play, which has actress-writer Lisa Kron talking about her life and recalling scenes from her past (with the help of a quirky cast), has prompted audiences to again ask the question, "Is this a Broadway play?" and "What exactly makes a play a Broadway play?"

Is there a place on Broadway for a play that tells a story in a non-traditional way?

Well began at The Public Theater downtown in 2004, where it also got solid reviews before playing a 2005 run at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where it was further refined.

"It's not a fringe play, or a downtown play," McCann said. "It's a very universal play. There have been people who've said, 'If this was below 14th Street it would be selling out.' Well, it would be selling 300 seats a night. It's selling more than that on Broadway. Even on a Tuesday night, when it's not at capacity it's selling more tickets than it would sell Off-Broadway. So I don't get the logic of that."

The week after the play's March 30 opening, McCann said she has no plan to launch a TV ad campaign.

Scott Walton, director of marketing and public relations for American Conservatory Theater, told Playbill.com that the not-for-profit ACT run of Well in 2005 made its box office goal.

"Finding the right audience is always a challenge. But with Well, which made its goal, we successfully created incentive programs for audience segments represented in the show to tell their friends," Walton said. "We knew that it would take time for the incentives, combined with word of mouth, to kick in but, in the end, Well surpassed its goal and found an audience who appreciated its unique qualities."

The work's small cast and modest scenic demands (to say nothing of the rave-to-mixed reviews it has earned) would suggest no matter what Well's Broadway future, it will live healthily in resident theatres for seasons to come.

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Previews began at the Longacre Theatre March 10. Leigh Silverman (Off-Broadway's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Jump/Cut, Oedipus at Palm Springs) directs Well, as she has previous engagements of the presentational, highly theatrical work — a seriocomic investigation about wellness and the mystery of parent/adult child relationships.

Well is produced by Elizabeth Ireland McCann, Scott Rudin, Boyett Ostar Productions, True Love Productions, Terry Allen Kramer, Roger Berlind, Carole Shorenstein Hays, John Dias, Joey Parnes (executive producer) in association with Larry Hirschhorn and The Public Theater and The American Conservatory Theater.

OBIE Award winners Lisa Kron and Jayne Houdyshell reprise the roles they created when Well had its premiere at The Public Theater in 2004. They played a subsequent 2005 run at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

According to the producers, "Well opens with Lisa Kron's mother sitting on a La-Z-Boy recliner in the middle of the stage. As the play goes on to deal with Kron's personal experiences of healing, a comedic coup d'état breaks out. The actors critique the script, her memories conflict with her flashbacks, her mother interrupts with her own opinions, and Kron finds herself in danger of losing control. The result is a hilarious and brazen piece that questions our thoughts on the conventions of both theatre and wellness."

The Well creative team also includes Tony Walton (scenic design), Miranda Hoffman (costume design), Christopher Akerlind (lighting design), John Gromada (original music and sound design), Tom Watson (hair and wig design), Susie Cordon (production stage manager) and Allison Sommer (stage manager).

Cindy Katz, Randy Danson, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Colman Domingo and Joel Van Liew are also part of the company.

The earlier Off-Broadway production garnered Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, and Outer Critics Circle nominations and an OBIE award for Jayne Houdyshell's work as Kron's mother.

Daniel Breaker's theatre credits include Fabulation at Playwrights Horizons; A Midsummer Night's Dream, Silent Woman, The Rivals and The Tempest at The Shakespeare Theatre. Saidah Arrika Ekulona performed in Well at the Public Theater. Other Off-Broadway credits include Fabulation at Playwrights Horizons. John Hoffman is best known on the stage for his play Northern Lights, which became a made-for-cable film in which he starred with Diane Keaton. He directed Lisa Kron's 101 Humiliating Stories for a night at Lincoln Center and a run at The New York Theater Workshop. Christina Kirk has appeared in [sic] for Soho Rep, Worldly Acts (Urban Empire), Stage Door (HERE), and David Auburn's Fifth Planet (New York Stage and Film Workshop).

The Longacre Theatre is at 220 W. 48th Street.

Well plays Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 PM, Thursday-Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM.

Tickets are on sale via Telecharge.com at (212) 239-6200. Ticket prices range $25-$85.

Visit www.wellonbroadway.com.

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Why is the play called Well?

It's introduced as wanting to be about the nature being "well," but as she explores the history of her own past illnesses — which were apparently allergies — Kron creates a vivid portrait of her mother who (despite health issues) helped bring smooth social change to their neighborhood in Lansing, MI (the neighborhood was a model of racial integration for its time).

Some observed that Well was a unique view of the mysterious nature of parent-child relationships, and about the uncomfortable challenge of integrating parents into one's own life.

Playwright-performer Kron has also penned 2.5 Minute Ride and 101 Humiliating Stories. As an actress, she has appeared in The Vagina Monologues and The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told.

As part of the theatre group The Five Lesbian Brothers, Kron appeared in Oedipus at Palm Springs at New York Theatre Workshop.

Well was developed with the assistance of the Sundance Institute Theatre Laboratory.