Our Broadway production of Lyle Kessler's Orphans will close on Sunday, May 19th, well in advance of its scheduled end-of-run on June 30th. I have not acted in a legit show on Broadway since A Streetcar Named Desire in 1992, having chosen the not-for-profit route on Broadway or regional for my last four shows. Broadway has changed in the past 21 years and I wanted take a moment to look at that.
Streetcar was produced by the Shubert Organization, among others. Jerry Schoenfeld, now represented on Broadway by his legacy and the house we currently occupy, was very much alive then and seemed keenly interested in teaching me some of the ropes of selling tickets to a non-musical production. Whatever tensions we had during the mounting of Williams' iconic drama, and there were a few (can you say Maria St. Just?), Jerry made sure that none of that sullied our public relations. Bad press about films or shows of any kind can negatively affect your chances. The opportunity to influence an audience through any kind of well-conceived or well-timed ad campaign is lost. First impressions do count. If "trouble" is that first impression, it's difficult to swim out of that riptide.
Our show involved the firing of an actor. Those things do happen. I've been fired before and I can tell you it's not pleasant. But the tabloid culture that dominates the media today, with its jettisoning of nearly all journalistic tenets, rushes to paint the most sensational and, at times, least fact-based presentation of a story. Whatever information that is the most damning/salacious/judgmental is posted as quickly as possible and replaced by the next "event" even more quickly.
I assure you that, in the case of Orphans, every professional consideration and courtesy was extended to the "aggrieved" party and, sometimes, it's just not meant to be.
Tabloid journalism, and its viral impact through the Internet in particular, has changed Broadway since 1992.
The New York Times is still a key player in the life of a Broadway production. The imprimatur of the Times serves as a necessary guide for people who do not have limitless resources to buy tickets, or are traveling to New York to enjoy the theatre and need a reliable opinion as to where to invest their time and money. In 1992, Frank Rich, of course, was the chief theatre critic for the Times. Rich was feared by many and even loathed by some. However, Rich was viewed as a critic who was both a good writer and someone who actually understood something about what was happening on stage. After Frank was gone, many talked about how intelligent and fair he was.
Ben Brantley, who I must state up front is no fan of mine (every John Simon must have his Amanda Plummer, I suppose), is not a good writer. Whereas Rich's keen sense of what worked or did not work on stage helped to elevate the position of his desk, Brantley is viewed as some odd, shriveled, bitter Dickensian clerk who has sought to assemble a compendium of essays on theatre, the gist of which often have no relationship to the events onstage themselves. Brantley carries the Times into the performance and little else. Beyond the obvious impact that a weak or scathing review in the Times has on sales, particularly with booking agents for tourists, no one I know of in the theatre reads Brantley except in the way that a doctor reads an x-ray to determine if you have cancer. Brantley doesn't offer criticism, per se, as much as he seeks to signal to some that they are actually unwelcome on Broadway. If you aren't Brantley's type, why bother? And it is this very "Why Bother" approach of Brantley's that I think is the most troubling.
A critic's job is to evaluate two things: what you are attempting to do and how close do you come to pulling it off. Highbrow, lowbrow, Shakespeare, Williams, movies like The Hangover, movies like Lincoln, they all deserve the same fate. If it's trash, then call it. But is it good trash or is the bar too low? Then call it. Is the piece ambitious and groundbreaking? Factor that in. But never say "why bother?'
In the case of Orphans, Brantley wrote "Why bother?" And that is to spit in the face of the playwright, the producers and all of their investors, the cast and director, the designers and the Schuberts, all of whom have had some success in the theatre. Brantley says we were wrong-headed to have even tried. Where would the theatre be if that was the prevalent thinking?
Thus far we have performed 48 shows and we have had 48 consecutive standing ovations. That's not easy with a drama. And as much as I am not one to say that this indicates we have a great production, I think it does indicate that Brantley spits in the face of all of those audiences, too. Write that you don't like something, surely. But, on Broadway, at least, don't mock those who do.
Frank Rich got cranky in his last year. He hated nearly everything and later admitted that, towards the end, he did not enjoy going to the theatre. Perhaps that is now true of Brantley, who has occupied his seat since 1996 (hard to believe) and seems to have spent the current Broadway season writhing/writing in agony.
I read the print version of the Times every day and will continue to do so, I assume, regardless of (or in Brantley's case, in spite of) who covers the theatre. But the "Why Bother" theme seems wrong for the Times. And with the more insightful Isherwood sitting there, writing circles around Brantley, I think it's time for the Times to get rid of Brantley. I don't know anyone, anyone at all, who will miss him or his writing.
Orphans closes soon and with it the good work of Dan Sullivan and his team of designers, the hard-working backstage crew, the cast and their understudies. I am so pleased for Tom Sturridge and his Tony nomination. What a fantastic welcome to Broadway for a very talented young actor.
Most of all I want to thank Ben Foster, who, in the wake of the cast upheaval, parachuted into New York and saved the play from closing. Ben is not only a truly gifted actor, he is one of the great gentleman I have ever worked with. Every night before our respective entrances, Ben would give me a sign of "encouragement," a clap on the back or some such, to let me know we were heading into this together. Some nights, that gesture alone put the wind in my sails.
And thank you to Lyle. I bothered because of you, Lyle, and your beautiful and weird writing. Without playwrights, there is nothing. I will never forget your play, Lyle. I only wish we could have given it the success that it, and you, truly deserve.