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Reviewing Al Pacino, Broadway’s Collateral Damage And Air For Sale, Cheap: Gerard & Roth

Deadline logo Deadline 3/9/2017 Jeremy Gerard
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EXCLUSIVE: Deadline theater critic Jeremy Gerard and Jujamcyn Theatres president Jordan Roth discuss the hottest topics on the Rialto, the only precondition being: no holds barred.

GERARD: I’m wondering whether Significant Other, which opened last week on Broadway, will end up as, to use that Vietnam-era euphemism, collateral damage in the aftermath of Charles Isherwood’s abrupt departure from The New York Times. I know you loved this play when it opened at the Roundabout, and I liked it too – much more than Joshua Harmon’s earlier comedy, Bad Jews. Isherwood loved Significant Other, and his enthusiastic review doubtless played a role in the decision by producer Jeffrey Richards to move it to Broadway.

As we know, mounting any play on Broadway is a chancy proposition – especially a new play and even more especially one without a star to boast on the marquee. Times policy has generally dictated that the critic who reviewed a show off-Broadway would revisit it if it transferred. Given the experience with The Humans last year – new play, no stars, big hit – Richards could at least feel secure in the knowledge that The Times would get behind it.

Instead, the transfer was reviewed by chief critic Ben Brantley, who didn’t love Significant Other so much. When The Times loves a show, a producer can expect to see countless follow-up stories to support it (Hamilton, The Book of Mormon). Conversely, when the Paper of Record is cool to a show, it pretty much disappears from sight. Last week, Significant Other sold $165,000 worth of tickets, just 21 per cent of its potential. It faces an uphill climb at the worst possible time, when so many new shows are opening and clamoring for attention, and house-hunting producers already are circling the Booth Theater in anticipation of a vacancy.

ROTH: Whenever all critics don’t agree on a show, it can be perplexing for that show’s team. Same piece, same cast, same design, totally different responses. But this must have been crazy-making. Of course when they decided to move the show, the producers and investors believed they had at least one important variable on their side. Of course, too, The Times is always free to send whoever it wants to review. A good reminder that each review is one person’s opinion. And perhaps a vote for The Times to reinstate its Sunday review for a second point of view.

GERARD: I’m with you on that. Next subject, Al Pacino:  My colleague Charles McNulty, the chief theater critic of The Los Angeles Times, began a recent column this way:

“The reason you haven’t read a review in The Times of God Looked Away, the new play by Dotson Rader at the Pasadena Playhouse in which Al Pacino plays Tennessee Williams at the inebriated end of his faltering playwriting career, is that critics haven’t been invited to see the show.”

So McNulty bought a ticket ($135 for the back of the orchestra), noting that while it was a developmental production, it was fully mounted and had commercial producers attached. Then he turned a bit coy, writing,

“I won’t tell you what I think of Pacino’s Bronx-ified Southern drawl or the way he seems to be wandering about in a fugue state. And please don’t ask me to comment on how Robert Allan Ackerman’s dithering direction compounds the slow-motion tailspins of this two-hour, 45-minute play…As for Judith Light, who receives star billing, my belief in truth in advertising impels me to tell you that her scenery-chewing turn begins only after we’ve settled back into our seats after intermission. But I beg you not to interrogate me any further on the subject.”

I seldom blame producers for doing whatever they think they can get away with to “protect” their shows. It’s all well and good to ask us not to review a show. But it’s essential for critics to ignore the request and use our own judgment, based on its newsworthiness. Al Pacino, Dotson Rader, Tennessee Williams: Where’s the debate? We’re journalists. We don’t – or at least we shouldn’t – ask permission for what to cover. We’re entirely capable of letting our readers know when we’re reviewing something in development, and that it may change.

That’s why I wish McNulty hadn’t begun his column by making an economic argument – i.e., it’s a full production, with tickets going for $200 – for writing about God Looked Away. I’ve made this case before (I realized when I reviewed Sunset Boulevard last week that I’ve written nearly as many reviews of that show as I did of the much-postponed Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.) Not even my colleagues are in universal agreement with me on this, but again, I don’t serve them, I serve the readers of Deadline. Why should the most qualified critics be the only ones excluded from taking part in the process of a show’s development when such luminaries are involved?

ROTH:  Because you’re the only ones whose participation in the process of a show’s development could actually end that development. Nothing scares off investors, theater owners, even luminaries themselves (and certainly their agents) like bad reviews. So while you may be able to explain to your readers that a show may change, it and they may never get that chance.

I’m glad you stepped away from the economic argument. What audiences are paying for previews or developmental performances always seemed to me beside the point. Whatever dollar amount you’d say is too high to pay for unreviewed work would always be arbitrary. And a review isn’t simply a consumer report determining if the product is worth the money. But I’m intrigued by your alternative standard of “newsworthiness.” Does that just mean that people are talking about it and want to know more? Why then is an illuminating feature not enough? Why does it have to be a judgment? For as many times as we remind ourselves that a review is one person’s opinion (see above), publish it and it can become fact.

I’m also intrigued that you define yourself as serving only the readers of Deadline. Not also the theater itself?

GERARD: I didn’t say “only,” but of course, by offering the reader a considered, contextual opinion, we are in the best sense serving the theater. Look at it from the other direction: Had Claudia Cassidy not championed The Glass Menagerie in Chicago, or Kenneth Tynan Look Back In Anger in London, those plays might well have died on the vine of public (and mostly negative critics’) opinions. Last subject: Bringing it all back home, it looks as though you and your theater-owning compatriots can breathe a sigh of relief; the New York City Council managed to quash a plan to increase the fees collected on the transfer to developers of oxygen above landmarked theaters. That keeps in place an outdated formula that has seen only a pittance go to the pool created to use those monies to subsidize culture-related businesses in the Theater District.

ROTH: You call it oxygen to make it sound worthless and not own-able but it’s neither. They’re air rights, but the relevant part isn’t air, it’s rights. To preserve a baseline of space and light for us all, the city limits the amount of development in any area, so if you own the right to develop, that right is valuable. (Without these limits, the right to develop would be infinite not zero, so property owners are already contributing a portion of their value to the public good.) And just like any other thing of value, you can keep it and use it or sell it to someone else who will. The only accommodation offered to theater owners is how far away that someone else can be.

All property owners have the right to sell their development potential to a next-door neighbor. Theaters were granted the right to sell to neighbors a few blocks away. Why? Because most theaters are built very near each other, so transferring next-door isn’t possible. And because maintaining and carrying these hundred year-old buildings is extremely expensive and theater isn’t the most lucrative possible use. (And before you holler Hamilton, refer above to your own assessment of Significant Other‘s uphill climb.) In exchange for the ability to sell this valuable right to a buyer a few blocks away, theater owners pay a fee and commit to operate the building as a legit theater forever. Surely that’s worth it. And while that fee goes to support theater-related programs in the area, increasing the fee by 400% is just unfair. That’s why it didn’t pass. Not because it’s oxygen.

GERARD: Hmmm. While I am sympathetic to your argument about the economic constraints placed on the owners of landmarked buildings, I’ll also keep in mind your reference to “a baseline of space and light for us all” as our beloved Theater District morphs inexorably into a benighted canyon resembling the Financial District because of all those air-rights augmented sun blockers springing up like choking weeds.

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