The company of the Jewish Repertory Theatre production was broadsided by the playwright and director Richard Sabellico in the press while the work was in previews, with 82-year-old Laurents telling The New York Post Oct. 20: "I don't need the critics to tell me the production is no good. It is not ready to be seen, and will never be ready to be seen in this production."
JRT artistic director Ran Avni said the show would go on, despite the author's bad review of preview performances, and would be open to the scrutiny of JRT subscribers and drama critics.
Post critic Donald Lyons called the show "a tiresome, static production dominated by a performer out of control. But the play itself is a misbegotten enterprise from the get-go. It's an idea that's made to order for a John Guare-type of surreal comedy, but has been written in a plodding, repetitive, naturalist lingo."
The New York Times review ran Nov. 2, with Bruce Weber concluding he felt "puzzled" by the experience. Theatregoers quoted on NY1's "OnStage" said the show was valuable, provocative and filled with issues. "What is most important to me is the response of the audience," Avni previously told Playbill On-Line.
Director Richard Sabellico took Laurents' side and told The Post the production "doesn't serve the play and it is not an accurate reflection on my work as the director." In a piece written by Post scribe Michael Riedel, Sabellico is quoted as implicating his cast, saying, "They have worked incredibly hard" though some of them "are not connecting to their parts, to each other, to the director or to the language of the play." Laurents told The Post and The Times that he thinks his work is good, inviting readers to draw their own conclusions about who's at fault.
Company member David Margulies told NY1's "OnStage" program after the opening, "What it is, is what they made, with the people they chose. Therefore, they are a part of it, whether they wish to (be) or not."
Observers in the directing community privately told Playbill On-Line that they could not think of a case of a director washing his hands of a work he or she was the sole director of, although there have been cases when directors are replaced and they do not wish to have credit for the work.
JRT artistic director Avni said he read the articles and was disappointed. "This is a terrific group of professional, talented actors and they've been in the business for awhile and they know sometimes things don't go as you'd like them to," Avni told Playbill On-Line.
The staging began previews Oct. 10 at the 199-seat Duke Theatre on 42nd Street in Manhattan. JRT's mission is presenting works that are Jewish themed, authored or of interest to a Jewish audience, and Friday nights are dark in observance of the sabbath.
Asked about Laurents and Sabellico badmouthing the show, Avni said, "I prefer to not discuss those things in public. Clearly, that part of the experience has not been the way I hoped it would be."
Asked if Laurents had the chance to simply pull his play rather than create such public embarrassment, Avni said he did not feel comfortable discussing legal and contractual matters. Others in the industry have said that a playwright cannot pull his play once a contract has been signed.
Director Sabellico's next project is staging a new version of Jerry Herman's Dear World for Goodspeed-at-Chester/The Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, CT.
The Laurents play in question is a dark comedy written by Laurents in the early 1970s but shelved until recently. The piece is set in 1975 and concerns a Polish-born Queens, NY, beautician and Nazi hunter who lures a suspected former Nazi to her apartment.
Paul Hecht and Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska star in the world premiere, opening JRT's new season in its new home, at the Duke, the new Off-Broadway-sized venue on 42nd Street.
Nessa (played by Czyzewska), the Queens beautician and Nazi hunter, is a concentration camp survivor who discovers a suspected Nazi (played by Paul Hecht) at a local travel office (they are both seeking information about travel to South America, where many Nazis fled after the war). She lures him to her apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens, where she and her husband (David Margulies) keep him handcuffed in a wheelchair while their Vietnam veteran son (Dylan Chalfy) looks on in numbed disbelief. Sabellico directed a reading of the play earlier this year, and helms the full JRT staging.
The title is a reference to beautician Nessa's nickname for Nazis — she calls them potatoes. The man she brings to her place is suspected to be a "big potato." The play concerns Nessa's wish to right past wrongs and is a portrait of her passionate monomania: To "remember" and to scream loudly, or you will never be heard.
"I've opened over 120 shows in New York and if I were to open [solely on the basis of] what the critical reaction would be, I would have given up on some hits," Avni said.
Avni called the work a "very important play dealing with important issues."
JRT stages the production in association with Daryl Roth and Scott Rudin.
The cast also includes Joanna Glushak (Les Miserables, Sunday in the Park With George) as assimilated daughter Rachel (who wants her named pronounced "Rachelle").
Hecht (playing Julius, an apparent former Nazi) is a Tony Award nominee for the original Broadway staging of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and appeared in 1776, The Player, The Rothschilds and Noises Off, among many other New York and regional productions.
Sabellico directed a private reading of a revised script of Big Potato at The Dramatists Guild May 19 with a cast including Czyzewska as Nessa, Brian Murray as Julius, David Margulies as Itzhak, Joanna Glushak as Rachel and Ryan Artzberger as Sonny.
Two by Two, the Richard Rodgers-Martin Charnin musical about Noah and the Ark, will play the JRT April 21 May 13, 2001. Two more productions are expected in 2000 2001.
Laurents, of course, is the playwright and director who may be best known for the books of Gypsy and West Side Story, but who also penned the screenplay for "The Way We Were," libretti for Hallelujah, Baby!, Do I Hear a Waltz? and Anyone Can Whistle. His play, The Time of the Cuckoo, was revived this season by Lincoln Center Theater and his recent play, Jolson Sings Again, has been staged regionally and is expected to appear in Manhattan in the coming season.
Laurents' autobiography, "Original Story By," was released in early 2000.
Tickets are $40-$45. For information about the JRT's 27th season, call (212) 831-2001.