Collapse of 'Brighton' has ripple effect

The abrupt closing Sunday of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” after only nine performances has cast a brief, uneasy shadow over Broadway’s fall season, ironically one of the busiest in years.

And the revival’s collapse has had a ripple effect, forcing the cancellation of a second Simon production, “Broadway Bound,” which was to have opened at the same theater (the Nederlander) in December and then run in repertory with “Brighton Beach.”

“A lot of nice people on stage and off will be out of work and a lot of good partners and investors will have lost a great deal of money,” producers Emanuel Azenberg and Ira Pittelman said in a statement. “They all deserve better. It makes us sad.”

Yet its failure – the shortest run ever for a Simon play on Broadway – stands in contrast to the healthy box-office activity of several star-driven productions such as “A Steady Rain,” featuring the one-two punch of Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig; a revival of “Hamlet,” starring Jude Law as Shakespeare’s melancholy Danish prince, and “God of Carnage,” last season’s best-play Tony winner, with a cast of James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis.

The two-character “Rain” has proven to be particularly potent at the box office, regularly grossing more than $1.2 million each week, more than most musicals. “Carnage” has maintained its high grosses, too, even after a six-week summer hiatus for its stars. Whether that momentum will be sustained when the show’s new cast – Jimmy Smits, Christine Lahti, Annie Potts and Ken Stott – take over Nov. 17 is uncertain.

The revival of “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” a show first seen on Broadway in 1983, did meager business during its three weeks of previews, grossing less than $125,000 during the week before its Oct. 25 opening. Despite many good reviews, the show’s receipts didn’t increase as much as its producers hoped.

The biggest name in “Brighton Beach” was Laurie Metcalf, who was to have had the showiest role in “Broadway Bound,” the final chapter in Simon’s lightly fictionalized stage autobiography.

Stars help, but they don’t guarantee success. Last season, Jane Fonda, Geoffrey Rush, Susan Sarandon and John Leguizamo all appeared in shows that didn’t earn back their production costs.

And this season, David Mamet’s “Oleanna” appears to be underperforming at the box office despite the presence of Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman. So is Tracy Letts’ “Superior Donuts,” which features Michael McKean as the owner of a rundown Chicago doughnut shop.

Jeffrey Richards, one of Broadway’s more experienced producers, has savvily lined up four names for his production of David Mamet’s new play, “Race”: James Spader, Richard Thomas, David Alan Grier and Kerry Washington, each of whom could bring in a different audience.

Broadway also is watching to see how the fall’s two new musicals – “Memphis” and “Fela!” – do. Both don’t have stars. Neither does the recently opened revival of “Finian’s Rainbow,” which gathered mostly good reviews.

Yet more stars – including Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angela Lansbury, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Abigail Breslin, Sean Hayes, Kristin Chenoweth, Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth – are on tap to appear in Broadway’s nearly three dozen theaters despite the troubled economy.

David Richenthal, producer of “Finian’s Rainbow” and the upcoming “Miracle Worker,” starring Abigail Breslin as Helen Keller, is optimistic. The new show opens in March at Circle in the Square Theatre, an in-the-round playhouse not used as frequently as more conventional proscenium Broadway theaters.

“It would be disingenuous to pretend ‘Oh, we had a brilliant idea, let’s do it in the round,’” Richenthal said. “But you can make a virtue out of necessity. Theaters are more booked this season than any time in my memory in the 20 years I’ve producing.

“Usually I’ll go to a theater owner and they will tell you, ‘I don’t have a theater right now but wait a couple of months – something will open up,’” the producer said. “Instead, all three of the main theater owners (the Shubert Organization, the Nederlander Organization and Jujamcyn) said ‘No. We have backups for our backups for our backups.’”

Which, most likely, means they will be announcing a new show for the Nederlander, home of “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” any day now.

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