PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, July 7-13: Bernard Gersten Steps Down, Bob Boyett Steps Up, Sweet Bird Gets a Movie Star

By Robert Simonson
July 14, 2012

The retirement of a theatre company's executive director is typically not big news. Such behind-the-scenes characters — though their work is vital and their talents well-known to their colleagues — tend to be little-noticed by the public as they slip in and out of employment



But when you're talking about Lincoln Center Theater executive director Bernard Gersten, you're trafficking in the stuff of legends. The theatre man, who bears the title "veteran" more deservingly than almost anyone else in the New York theatre world, will step down from his post in summer 2013 after a 28-year run.

Twenty-eight years is, however, not all the time Gersten has put into the theatre. Following more than a decade of work as a stage manager, he was, from 1960 to 1978, associate producer at the Public Theater (then the New York Shakespeare Festival). As Joe Papp's right-hand man, he helped build that company into the city institution it became, and still is. A misunderstanding between the two men led to a split, and Gersten spent the next decade in a variety of capacities.

The glorious second act of his impossibly long career came when Gregory Mosher invited him to partner with him in the resurrection of Lincoln Center Theater. Many artistic giants (including Papp) had tried and failed to bring the enterprise to life, but no one had found the right formula. When Mosher and Gersten arrived, in 1985, the Beaumont had been dark for years. The duo revived the space with hit productions of Anything Goes, The House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation, The Front Page and many more. When Mosher left in 1991, and Andre Bishop became artistic director, Gersten remained.

Bishop will stay on in his role as artistic director, but a successor will not be named for Gersten's role.

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At the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, the new stage version of William Peter Blatty's horror novel The Exorcist opened July 11, with Brooke Shields, of all people, playing the mother of a girl possessed by the devil; and John Doyle, of all people, directing the thing. The Exorcist has Broadway producers Ben Sprecher and Sonia Friedman attached for a possible commercial future.

Sprecher and Friedman were probably disappointed by the Los Angeles Times review's headline: "The Exorcist falls short of a devilishly good time." Complained the critic, "The physical production is just so much more persuasive than the dramatic encounters contained within it…. It wouldn't be fair to hold the actors responsible for the stilted dialogue supplied by [playwright John Pielmeier], who doesn't trust the dramatic action to embody his play's meaning. Everything is a tad over-explained. If one rationale seems a little dubious, he'll drop in a second and perhaps even a third. Consequently, the colloquies between characters grow tedious, stuffed as they are with artificial import."

Back Stage called the effort "incomplete" with "frustratingly negligible visual effects" and "trick casting" clashing with "Pielmeier's desired simplicity." Variety, meanwhile said of the lack of "cinematic pea-soup vomit and a moppet's spinning head" that "those not intensely interested in Blatty's unified field theory of good and evil are likely to perceive this self-conscious religioso exercise as a case of bait-and-switch."

*** The end of another era was announced this week in London. Chicago, the West End's longest-ever running revival, now in its 15th year, is to shutter Sept. 1. The show is currently playing at the Garrick, its third London house after originally opening at the Adelphi and subsequently moving to the Cambridge.

The production originally opened in the West End on Nov. 18, 1997, going on to win the 1998 Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Musical Production. The original cast of the London production of starred Ruthie Henshall, Ute Lemper, Henry Goodman and Nigel Planer. Henshall and Lemper later did stints on the New York version of the show. As with the Broadway production, the company has seen its share of casting one-offs and oddities, among them: New Wave singer Alison Moyet, singer/starlet Ashlee Simpson, model Christie Brinkley, "Baywatch" star David Hasselhoff, reality TV star Kelly Osbourne, and "Wonder Woman" Lynda Carter.

The source staging, Broadway's Chicago, which has its roots in an Encores! concert, continues. It has reigned as the longest-running musical revival in Broadway history for some time now. Walter Bobbie directed, Ann Reinking choreographed in the tradition of Bob Fosse. The score is by John Kander and Fred Ebb.

Diane Lane
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The new Stephen King-John Mellencamp musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County may not have faded into the mist since its Atlanta premiere last spring.

The Gothic Southern musical about a decades-old tragedy that haunts the population of a small town received mixed-to-cool critical notices in Atlanta, but the creators are still hopeful for a future life. A ten-day New York City presentation is reported for this September.

The Atlanta cast featured Shuler Hensley, Emily Skinner and Justin Guarini.

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Screen star Diane Lane has been cast as Princess Kosmonopolis in Goodman Theatre's fall production of Tennessee Williams' seldom-produced semi-classic Sweet Bird of Youth, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Finn Wittrock, who played "Happy" in the recent Tony Award-winning revival of Death of a Salesman, and who has as unlikely a name as does "Chance Wayne," will essay that part in the play.

Director David Cromer will stage the drama about a broken movie star on the arm of a gigolo returning to his Mississippi hometown. Performances are scheduled for Sept. 15-Oct. 21 in the Goodman's Albert Theatre.

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Producers of Silence! The Musical, the most successful show to come of the New York Fringe since [title of show], announced July 11 that the long-running production will transfer to the Elektra Theatre with performances beginning July 18. This news prompted the theatre community to exclaim, "There's an Elektra Theatre!!!???"

Yes, there is. It's just off Times Square, at 42nd and Eighth Avenue, and was specially constructed to be the new home of Silence!

The cast currently features David Garrison (Hannibal Lecter), Jenn Harris (Clarice Starling) and Stephen Bienskie (Buffalo Bill) .

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Well, there'll be no living Broadway producer Robert Boyett now.

The accomplished showman, who has a sweet tooth for British product, having produced on Broadway the works of Alan Bennett, Tom Stoppard, Martin McDonagh and others, has pulled down an honor that few of his Yankee colleagues can boast of. In recognition of "his invaluable service to British drama as both a philanthropist and a producer," he was on July 13 made an Honorary Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

To which a Western reporter can only say: Most excellent, Bob.