Broadway midseason analysis

Highs and lows more extreme than usual

Who would have thought Anton Chekhov and Arthur Miller would have the box office clout to triumph over a tanking economy?

Midway through the 2008-09 Broadway season, only two new productions have recouped: revivals of “The Seagull” and “All My Sons.” If that suggests a hospitable climate for quality nonmusical theater, then it’s good news for the slew of star-driven plays preparing to berth on Broadway in the spring.

But it’s too early to draw any such conclusions from a season in which the highs and lows likely will be more extreme than usual.

While January and February invariably are cruel months for biz, the unusually high number of shows closing Jan. 4 has earned that date the moniker of Black Sunday, with several more to follow that month.

Some say it’s the economy, others say once-mighty Tony winners like “Hairspray” and “Monty Python’s Spamalot” simply had run their course. Either way, such severe thinning of the ranks means the hit shows will be in even greater demand while the misses will be posting closing notices with unusual haste.

Even producers with deep pockets are likely to think twice about keeping a show running that hasn’t proved itself right off the bat. Offering further evidence that only the strongest will survive the recession blues, a number of productions announced for this season pulled the plug before opening, including revivals of “Godspell” and “For Colored Girls …” and new tuner “Vanities.”

The winners and losers already are clearly defined this season.

Like last fall, when “Young Frankenstein” and “The Little Mermaid” began performances, two mammoth musicals have again opened to promising business.

“Billy Elliot” and “Shrek the Musical” look like potential long-term tenants. Stephen Daldry’s dynamic staging of “Billy” opened to rapturous reviews and capacity houses, giving New York its best shot at a durable Brit import since “Mamma Mia!” With its backdrop of economic angst, labor unrest and looming unemployment, the bittersweet story of a miner’s son who discovers his passion for dance seems perfectly timed as an antidote to the current malaise.

DreamWorks’ first stage venture, adapted from the adorable-ogre screen franchise, drew a more mixed response but has the brand-name, impish humor and crowdpleasing quality to find an audience, providing it’s not a victim of the American family’s shrinking entertainment budget.

Other new musicals have been less fortunate, mostly with good reason.

The pricey Dickens tome-turned-tuner “A Tale of Two Cities” was yawned out of town fast by critics and auds who found its 1980s “Les Miz”-redux flavor stale, despite a talented cast. The foolhardy transfer of Off Broadway hitlet “[title of show]” was a self-congratulatory bit of insider musical spoofing that [tried too hard]. And “13,” which ends its short run in January, is a flavorless “High School Musical” that takes itself seriously with little cause to do so.

If those casualties left scars on their investors, the swift demise of “American Buffalo” must have been a bloodbath.

Headlined by the bizarre troika of John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer and Haley Joel Osment, who appeared to have met just moments before they came onstage, the Robert Falls production of David Mamet’s breakout play mislaid the underlying pathos to serve up punchy dialogue that somehow fell flat. The show called it quits just a week after opening.

Another Mamet revival, of what’s generally considered a lesser work, “Speed-the-Plow” showed glistening teeth in Neil Pepe’s taut staging, with Jeremy Piven (prior to his abrupt exit last week), Raul Esparza and Elisabeth Moss toplining as hungry Hollywood denizens.

Elsewhere on the revival front, stars Daniel Radcliffe and Frank Langella proved more compelling than their vehicles — respectively, Peter Shaffer’s strikingly theatrical but dated ’70s psychobabble about (misdiagnosed) repressed sexuality, “Equus,” and Robert Bolt’s dusty hagiography of Sir Thomas More, “A Man for All Seasons.”

The fall’s standout revival was Ian Rickson’s penetrating reassessment (originally for London’s Royal Court) of “The Seagull.” Subtle and unsettling, the production’s tone was set by the luminous Arkadina of Kristin Scott Thomas, embracing the character’s arch self-absorption and her inescapable melancholy with a helplessness that was heartbreaking to watch.

And while it wasn’t everyone’s cup of Greek tragedy by way of post-WWII America, experimental director Simon McBurney’s nonnaturalistic take on “All My Sons” delivered powerful dramatic pyrotechnics in the hands of John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson and an only marginally out-of-her-element Katie Holmes, who no doubt helped goose ticket sales.

New plays were fewer in number, the least of them being Nick Whitby’s flat-footed retread of the Ernst Lubitsch screen classic “To Be or Not to Be,” which died a mercifully quick death for Manhattan Theater Club.

Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate” is new to New York and has been honed since its 1989 regional premiere. Transferred from Off Broadway by Lincoln Center Theater and Primary Stages, the bittersweet ensemble comedy-drama about a Texas family circling its dwindling inheritance is like a more genteel mirror image of last season’s hit, “August: Osage County,” distinguished by the grace, compassion and sly wit that are Foote’s trademarks.

While musical revivals will be represented in the spring by three iconic, era-defining titles — the Public Theater’s transfer of “Hair,” librettist Arthur Laurents’ staging of “West Side Story” and a new “Guys and Dolls” — Roundabout had the field to itself in the fall with “Pal Joey.”

A dark and beguiling time-trip to the sleazy underworld of late-1930s Chicago, the Rodgers & Hart show benefits from a gritty new book by Richard Greenberg that reminded Broadway audiences just how riveting a grown-up musical can be.

However, the big event of December has been the Rialto return of Liza Minnelli in “Liza’s at the Palace,” a self-celebratory comeback vehicle that pays homage to the performer’s mother, Judy Garland, and godmother, Kay Thompson. Unlike the more mixed reception for “Minnelli on Minnelli” in 1999, the welcome from critics and audiences this time around has been resounding.

And Broadway provided competition for the lucrative Radio City holiday entertainment market, notably with Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” whose artificial approximation of a tap-happy old-time musical spectacular went down just fine with the tourist-heavy flocks.

The snow that rains down over the Marquis Theater audience at the end of that animated Hallmark card was nothing compared with the blizzards unleashed upon theatergoers at “Slava’s Snowshow.” The clown compendium provided some arrestingly surreal imagery even for those of us who cringe at anything with a bulbous red nose.

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