The play’s the thing. On musical-dominated Broadway, it’s a long time since anyone’s been able to say that and mean it. But as the 2007-08 season hits the midpoint, it’s the wave of challenging drama, not the thin smattering of song-and-dance, that’s galvanizing critics. As for audiences, the jury’s still out.
Consider the roster of new plays ushered into Gotham theaters in the past two months:
A fusillade of politics and passion from heavy-hitter Tom Stoppard; a densely plotted meditation on the birth of television from Aaron Sorkin; a lighter change of pace for the melancholy poet of Irish solitude, Conor McPherson; a bold breakthrough drama in a distinctly American tradition from Tracy Letts; and an unexpectedly delightful, previously unproduced farce from Mark Twain.
Factor in a scintillating revival of arguably Harold Pinter’s most formidable play, and lush, visually spectacular remounts of Shakespeare and Edmund Rostand, and you get a picture of dramatic vitality the likes of which Broadway hasn’t seen in years.
More than once in recent seasons, Rialto theater lovers hungry for a play had as few as one, or even zero, choices on the menu. Now they have a banquet.
That’s not to say musicals are in any way endangered as Broadway’s bread and butter. Tuners still account for the lion’s share of grosses and occupy the majority of Rialto houses, with behemoths like “Wicked” and “Jersey Boys” further consolidating their position in a landscape of long-running stalwarts such as “The Lion King” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”
But in a business where many see a tough climate for straight plays on the commercial mainstage, the flood of well-received drama in recent weeks has been a tonic — particularly after the gloom of November’s prolonged strike.
That labor dispute between stagehands and producers resulted in all but nine shows being shuttered on Broadway from Nov. 10-28, robbing the legit sector of considerable revenues over Thanksgiving, traditionally the year’s second most lucrative period after the Christmas-through-New Year’s frame.
The tally through Dec. 16 for the current season (starting in June) was $471,145,386, and while the drop of $29 million from the same period last year will clearly be felt, it seems relatively contained, considering the majority of theaters remained dark for 18 days. However, the loss does significantly impact Broadway’s chances of overtaking the $1 billion mark in box office this season, a hurdle that appeared realistic in pre-strike forecasts.
While ticket sales generally bounced back to a reasonable degree after the strike, it remains to be seen whether the bountiful crop of plays will thrive or cannibalize each other at the box office — particularly through the winter chill of January and February. But the simple fact that producers are still willing to take the chance offers a rebuttal to all those cries of doom about the dumbing-down of Broadway into a tourist-friendly theme park.
Perhaps the strongest of the new works has been Letts’ blistering saga of the disintegration of an American family, “August: Osage County,” a meaty, three-act work of three hours-plus, full of barbed dialogue that pays homage to classic works by Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams. As well as bringing a new voice to Broadway, the production showcases superb ensemble work from a cast primarily of Chicago actors from the Steppenwolf Theater Company, most of them unknown to New York auds.
Stoppard’s personal reflection on Czech politics and music as a force for rebellion, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” had no shortage of admirers (though this critic found it a stodgy sit after the playwright’s far more theatrically vibrant “Coast of Utopia” trilogy last season). Driven by a deeply felt performance from Rufus Sewell as a reluctant dissident, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” showed again that New York auds are not intimidated by intellectual work.
McPherson’s meditations on the tormented soul of the Irish male took on an unexpectedly uproarious tone in “The Seafarer,” in which an enigmatic stranger turns up to play poker with a bunch of drunks on Christmas Eve, revealing himself to be the devil. While the play isn’t quite the equal of previous McPherson dramas like “The Weir” and “Shining City,” the playwright’s work as director could hardly be better. Ditto that of his cast.
After a long and successful stint in film and television, Sorkin’s return to Broadway with “The Farnsworth Invention” was a mixed bag. Pitching the race to perfect the invention of television between humble techno-genius Philo T. Farnsworth and media mogul David Sarnoff as a David vs. Goliath battle, the talky drama plays fast and loose with the facts. Its big problem, however, is that even in Des McAnuff’s slick production, it feels more like an outline for a TV or film project than a fully dramatized stage-ready work.
Set in the unlikely arena of philately, Theresa Rebeck’s “Mauritius” was a diverting but ultimately insubstantial thriller in a Mamet-lite vein, while the big surprise among new works was Twain’s “Is He Dead?” Few will argue that the recently rediscovered 1898 play is up there with the great farces, but Michael Blakemore’s sparkling production — piloted by a riotous cross-dressing turn from Norbert Leo Butz — made it one of the funniest comedies to hit Broadway in some time.
Alongside those six new works, seven revivals of plays opened on the Rialto. Leader of the pack at the box office is David Leveaux’s handsomely upholstered staging of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” featuring an introspective but affecting take by Kevin Kline on the swashbuckler with the unfortunate schnoz. Kline’s co-star, Jennifer Garner, was an attractive if less commanding stage presence, a quality shared by fellow Hollywood recruit Claire Danes in the Roundabout’s journeyman retread of Shaw’s “Pygmalion.”
Terrence McNally’s 1970s gay bathhouse comedy, “The Ritz,” was revealed as a flimsy farce with a handful of amusing retro gags but little relevance in the post-AIDS era, while Chazz Palminteri’s one-man, multicharacter tour of his old neighborhood, “A Bronx Tale,” got by on the writer-actor’s unstinting affection for the colorful figures of his youth; and “Old Acquaintance” was, well, old and quaint.
More rewarding was Lincoln Center’s production of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” a convoluted, genre-hopping problem play given transporting treatment and a rich romantic heart in Mark Lamos’ staging — including a whip-smart Imogen in Martha Plimpton.
Best of the bunch, however, was Daniel Sullivan’s razor-sharp, impeccably acted revival of Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming,” a savage examination of the insidious power plays within a family of men, which has lost none of its capacity to provoke and unsettle in the four decades since the play premiered. It features a knockout turn by Eve Best as the lone woman in a den of men.
Musicals have taken a back seat on Broadway. With the post-strike shuffle prompting Disney to delay the opening of “The Little Mermaid” until January, the only big tuner news of the fall was Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein.”
Perhaps inevitably, after the warm embrace extended to “The Producers,” the stage reworking of Brooks’ classic horror spoof was given a lukewarm greeting by critics, most of whom felt that it too slavishly tried to recreate the film rather than evolve into its own animal. But while the producing team’s controversial decision not to report grosses makes it tough to make an exact assessment of the show’s traction, business has been strong, with enthusiastic audience response indicating ticket-buyers may not give a hoot what critics say. (While “Young Frankenstein” grosses cannot be included in official tallies, the show’s estimated $13.6 million total to date further offsets the slide from last season.)
The same discrepancy was evident in the solid box office for the current “Grease” revival from earlier in the season. The slapped-tog
ether result of a TV talent search to cast its two uncharismatic leads, Kathleen Marshall’s amateurish production earned almost unanimously withering reviews.
The opposite was true of “Xanadu,” perhaps the season’s most welcome surprise, which crept in almost under the radar, accompanied by snarky industry murmurs about what surely had to be a fool’s enterprise. Playwright Douglas Carter Beane and director Christopher Ashley remolded the ’80s jawdropper that contributed to the death of the movie-musical into a droll takedown of Broadway’s habit of recycling featherweight material into even more insubstantial tuners.
Not only does the show bring back legwarmers, roller-skates and breathy, Olivia Newton-John-styled pop vocals courtesy of lead Kerry Butler, it even spawned its own cult: Fanadus.