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Sunday, November 01, 2009


Stage Addiction: Last Train To Brighton Beach

Like many theatre bloggers, I'm sitting a bit agog this morning, trying to figure out what went wrong with The Neil Simon Plays at the Nederlander. After opening last week to glorious reviews and buzzworthy word-of-mouth, it has unexpectedly announced a closing date...today.

The news is shocking for a number of reasons. Yes, the grosses have been low, but that is to be expected in late previews, when shows give away most of the seats to critics, media, and awards voters. But when the reviews for the production's first part, Brighton Beach Memoirs, hit last week, they SHOULD have received a significant bump in sales...all shows do, historically. But they got zilch. And the producers, rightfully terrified by this incomprehensible turn of events, have cut and run before the bleeding gets any worse -- canceling the second part of the diptych, Broadway Bound, before it even opens.

The reasons for the failure of The Neil Simon Plays remain a frustrating mystery. Both plays are comedy classics, and are written by the most finanically dependable American playwright of all time. Throughout Neil Simon's career, his productions have been solidly profitable, appealing to New York Jewish audiences interested in the subject matter, to theatre aficionados, and to tourists who like his well-constructed laugh lines.

Furthermore, this production was impeccably put together. It boasted an Emmy-winning star with solid theatre credentials (Laurie Metcalf), a veteran, near-legendary producer (Manny Azenberg), a rising star director with two New York hits under his belt (David Cromer), and some of the best reviews of the season.

This is the very heart of the puzzle, though. The formula I just detailed above? That's the formula for success Broadway has followed for nearly 100 years. Good Play + Good Team + Marketing Potential + Great Reviews = Hit. What went wrong here?

We can speculate all we like, of course:
  • Maybe the financial downturn, which hit the traditional Jewish theatregoing audience hard this year, means they are currently not a dependable core for Jewish-themed plays.
  • Or maybe the financial downturn meant the investor backing was shaky...possible, given the economic climate today.
  • There are also starrier plays open right now -- A Steady Rain, Hamlet, God Of Carnage, Oleanna -- and perhaps they're drawing all the business. (Interestingly, all got worse reviews that Brighton Beach Memoirs, and yet are selling well.)
  • Maybe it's the curse of the Nederlander Theatre, which has only had one significant hit in the last five decades (Rent) since 1962's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
  • Maybe it's the crummy weather, or the World Series. Maybe movies are cheaper.
  • Maybe Neil Simon isn't the sellable brand he once was...it's been almost a decade since his last outing, 45 Seconds From Broadway. Maybe there are more people like me than I thought (aka, people who detest the pedestrian nature of his television-ish writing).
  • Maybe people want more excitement in their theatre, and are heading downtown instead for truly amazing stuff like Americana Kamikaze or The Lily's Revenge or Idiot Savant. It's significantly cheaper, and certainly where I'm spending my time these days. (I've only really loved one Broadway show this season -- Fela! -- while Off-Broadway has been rocking my world.)
  • Maybe theatre is a dying art form, and this is another sign of the impending apocalypse.
One thing's for certain: the economic formula for Broadway is changing. The old rules do not apply. And maybe the New Rule #1 is: nice plays don't stand a chance.

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Blogger Esther said...

Hey ModFab,

Very thoughtful, interesting post.

I'm one of those who was lucky enough to see Brighton Beach Memoirs and loved it and I'm so disappointed it never found an audience.

It's interesting, I almost wrote a blog post titled "Has Broadway lost the Jews?" Then I thought it was too flippant and I didn't really have the statistics or expertise to back it up!

Although I am Jewish, I didn't grow up in New York and I didn't have theatergoing parents. So I'm not speaking from any firsthand knowledge.

But I think it's safe to say that Jews have been reliable supporters of two groups over the past half-century: the Democratic Party and Broadway.

I think the Democrats are safe because no matter how strongly they support Israel, right-wing Republicans still make us queasy.

Broadway is a different matter. It's simply a victim of the cultural shifts over the past half-century. Families moving out of the city to the suburbs, movies and television becoming the primary forms of entertainment. The theatergoing tradition has eroded.

As much as I was excited about seeing both Neil Simon plays, I'm sure to a lot of younger theatergoers, he's someone their grandparents loved. I mean, Brighton Beach Memoirs takes place in 1937 - that's 72 years ago. Maybe in my enthusiasm I lost sight of just how long ago that is to a lot of people.

Look at two other shows you'd think might have attracted Jewish audiences - 13 and Irena's Vow. Neither one lasted for very long. I'm not sure Jewish theatergoers today feel a great need to see plays with Jewish themes. They want to see Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig like everyone else.

I don't know - maybe it needed a box office "name." Maybe better marketing. Maybe nothing would have helped. It's just very sad for everyone involved, including Noah Robbins who made his Broadway debut and Josh Grisetti, who never had a chance to open in Broadway Bound.

I thought David Edelstein had a good point in New York magazine: Neil Simon's plays connected with an audience on a level that theatre almost never does anymore.

Well, I've felt connected to lots of theatre but maybe I'm the exception to the rule. I just thought this was a wonderful production - funny and surprising in its poignancy and I'm so sad it's gone much too soon.

11/1/09, 6:34 PM  

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