Broadway Revivals Founder on Brighton Beach

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Anyone conversant with what's doing nowadays on Broadway knows the globally-famous and venerated honky-tonk venue is filled -- not to say glutted -- with revivals. There are many arguments to be made for their place along the Great White Way. Some are good -- for one, it's important to perpetuate our national and international theater treasures. Some are not so good -- for one, a property's being familiar to ticket buyers can be mistaken as a safe commercial bet, especially in tricky economic times.

Seems to me producers schedule revivals more often for marquee value than for enduring quality, although many plays and musicals fit neatly into both categories. But all those supposedly savvy show-biz entrepreneurs were dealt a puzzling blow this week when Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs -- which would seem to meet both the commercial and quality criteria -- closed after a week and a half and, maybe more to the doleful point, after receiving generally favorable notices.

Too often, however, the only review that really counts is the New York Times pronouncement via Ben Brantley or Charles Isherwood. This time Brantley's response was favorable-to-mixed and not what's known as "a money notice." Evidently, a Brantley rave was necessary for a box office where pre-opening sales had been reported as disappointing -- and threatening as well to the opening of Simon's companion play, Broadway Bound, which was scheduled to run in repertory with Brighton Beach Memoirs but is now, as expected, canceled.

Still, the lack of an unqualified Times endorsement may not be the entire explanation. More likely many factors are at play. But, what are those factors, theater analysts are wondering? The current theater-community head-scratching is getting so loud that any minute the fabled little old lady from Dubuque might hear it.

Was what shuttered Brighton Beach Memoirs the lack of stars in the cast at a time when, many insist, stars -- Jude Law, Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig, Siena Miller -- are needed to stud the chancy arena? (Are Miller and After Miss Julie co-star Jonny Lee Miller bona fide movie stars, anyway?) Laurie Metcalf, popular from television, apparently isn't a star because -- oh, who knows? -- the Roseanne fans are no longer interested. Maybe her Q rating has fallen and brought down this Brighton Beach Memoirs with it.

Or does the Brighton Beach Memoirs b. o. failure involve the fading of Neil Simon's once blockbuster status? Some of those pondering the mishap are floating the theory that Simon's play -- a solid hit in the '80's (length of run: March 27, 1983-May 11, 1986) -- is now considered dated but will evolve into a viable period piece when more time has elapsed.

But what sort of weird algorithm exists to figure out that stretch of time? Does the resounding click the revived Hair is now suggest that maybe 40 years or so is needed to establish classichood (classicdom?)? After all, it, too, flopped once -- in 1977, only several years after the initial production shuttered. Or maybe Hair, which boasts no movie or television names, is succeeding for some combination of ingredients -- great score, good direction, enthusiastic cast of young singer-dancers and other intangibles -- added to its reputation as having once revolutionized musicals by luckily thoroughly capturing the '60's flower-power zeitgeist.

These are maybes, of course. And possibly, successes of revivals -- new plays and tuners as well -- are, in the last analysis, unanalyzable, gorgeous flukes. Local crystal-ball gazers hadn't forecast a bright future for Finian's Rainbow when word circulated that it would transfer from City Center and the Encores! series to Broadway, but -- in its fine treatment -- it now looks as if it has a chance. On the other hand, a revived Bye Bye Birdie sounded like a good idea to the Rialto wags. And even in a version that has just about everything wrong with it -- miscast, badly directed and choreographed, the weakness of its libretto baldly exposed -- it may still catch on with more than Roundabout subscribers. (Say, is television's John Stamos a star?)

And what about David Mamet's Oleanna, which many observers considered a deficient play in its first showing and is now further undercut by its director? (Are cast members Bill Pullman and/or Julia Stiles stars, or just workaday movie actors enhancing their value by doing Broadway?) This Oleanna is an instance -- as is Bye Bye Birdie -- of how a below-par revival can actually erode a property's reputation. Yet, at the moment it's running longer than Brighton Beach Memoirs.

Look, Wicked is today's eye-popping box office phenomenon. There will never be another Wicked, but who'd predict how well the humungous money-maker will do when revived 20 years, 30 years, 50 years hence? Will it be regarded as a classic or as a monstrous lapse of turn-of-the-century judgment? Furthermore, who today would predict whether thinking in those unforeseeable coming eras will even include revivals as viable?

Beats me.