PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Oct. 31-Nov. 6: Why Me?

By Robert Simonson
November 6, 2009

Brighton Beach Memoirs announced a closing date this week and Broadway headed to the psychiatrist's couch, plaintively asking the skies, "Why?"

Though it perhaps shouldn't have, the quick shuttering delivered Broadway a body shock. The play was one half of a ballyhooed repertory set-up that also included Broadway Bound (which will now never open, despite much rehearsal). It was directed by the newly anointed director wunderkind, David Cromer. Moreover, it's one of Neil Simon most-loved plays (by critics and audiences) and opened to largely positive reviews — that is, if you ignore the damned-with-faint-praise job submitted by the New York Times' Ben Brantley. And yet, it closed faster than the reservation book at Rao's. Just nine performances and 25 previews. That's all, folks.

The startling turn of events seemed to demand that every theatre reporter of note write a think piece on the big question, "What Happened?," and the bigger question of "What Does This Mean for Broadway?" The New York Post neatly summed up the most frequently cited reasons for the bellyflop: "His humor is passé. His audience is dead or, worse, in Florida. The production didn't have a star. It was in the wrong theatre, the Nederlander, on remote 41st Street." The paper also reported an advertising deal that the producers made with the New York Times, involving cost discounts in exchange for the paper being the exclusive carrier of ads for the play, which may have limited the production's pull of ticketbuyers and resulted in Brighton's low advance ticket sale.

In the end, no one could come up with the answer. Like the man once said about show business, "Nobody knows anything." But the event was a spine-shivering reminder to producers who had been trying to talk themselves into the idea that the recession was near an end, and a reminder that their cynical tendency to cast film stars in plays is also a sensible one. Case in point: the Jude Law Hamlet recouped its investment this week. Furthermore, it's now a fair bet that the days of producing the plays of one-time Broadway King Simon on Broadway, without the safety net of a nonprofit, are gone. (The musicals are another matter: Simon's Promises, Promises arrives next spring.)

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Not sure if the producers of the critically acclaimed Geoffrey Nauffts play Next Fall absorbed the lessons of Brighton Beach Memoirs before they announced casting this week. The show, which will arrive at the Helen Hayes Theatre Feb. 16, 2010, will feature the same non-star talents that headlined the Off-Broadway production: Patrick Heusinger and Patrick Breen. Returning cast members also include Maddie Corman, Sean Dugan, Connie Ray and Cotter Smith.

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Off-Broadway's Classic Stage Company continues its tradition of spending time with plays that much of the rest of the New York theatre community isn't even thinking about. Works by Shakespeare and Thomas Heywood, those Elizabethan hitmakers, are blended in a new Trojan War piece called The Age of Iron, beginning previews Nov. 6. And the subject of CSC's latest First Look Festival, a program of one-night-only staged readings? The Italian maestro Luigi Pirandello. The festival will begin with CSC regular John Turturro performing the title role in Pirandello's Henry IV on two evenings. Coming up are readings of Six Characters in Search of An Author and Right You Are If You Think So.

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The big openings this week were Off-Broadway.

The Roundabout Theatre Company had the New York City premiere of Theresa Rebeck's show business comedy, The Understudy, which reunites her with frequent interpreter, actress Julie White. It opened Nov. 5 under the direction of Scott Ellis. Critics thought the backstage satire amusing and clever on the plus side, but subtracted points for a lack of depth, a confusion of tone and a certain lack of credibility in the plotting.

Downtown, at the Public Theater, Willem Dafoe opened Nov. 4 in the latest by avant garde auteur Richard Foreman, Idiot Savant. Critics, who are typically warm to Foreman, praised his latest event as a choice slice of the director-writer's inimitable and somewhat inscrutable world. And, since Foreman has said this may be his last play, reviews recommend to come get a eyeful before the man's singular brand of theatre disappears.

Lynn Redgrave in Nightingale
photo by Joan Marcus
At Manhattan Theatre Club, actress-writer Lynn Redgrave continues to make hay out of her rich family history. Nightingale, her solo show inspired by the life of her maternal grandmother, Beatrice Kempson. The play completes a trilogy of works penned by the stage star about her family: the Tony Award-nominated Shakespeare For My Father, which dealt with her father, Michael Redgrave; and The Mandrake Root, which was loosely based on her mother, actress Rachel Kempson.

The production was lent a further layer of the personal when it was revealed that Redgrave, a long-time cancer survivor, was diagnosed in recent weeks with a medical condition that required immediate treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. "Side effects of the treatment necessitate that Ms. Redgrave rely on her script for the entire run of the play at MTC," said a statement.

Critics loved the piece, saying the Redgrave held the audience in the palm of her hand from the start, and that the play transfixing, compelling, well-acted and well-structured.

Meanwhile, over in London, the Evening Standard announced that its Best Actress Award was being renamed in honor of Redgrave's late niece, Natasha Richardson, the actress daughter of Vanessa Redgrave who died following a skiing accident in March. In a press statement, the paper's executive director Evgeny Lebedev commented, "This year we lost one of the great stage talents of our age in a tragic accident. Natasha Richardson was not only an exceptional actress but a loving mother, sister, daughter and wonderful friend. She was loved by all whose lives she touched with her radiance, kindness and unforgettable glow of talent. We hope the London Evening Standard Natasha Richardson award for best actress will honor her achievements and her memory."