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Falling Off Broadway

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

How many shows about flop producers can New York bear? Sure, there's that one on 44th Street - you might have heard of it - but that's a big, splashy musical, and its central characters are trying to fail. How involving is a show going to be if its central figure is trying to succeed but can almost never do anything right?

That's the first of two insurmountable problems with Falling Off Broadway, the lifeless and listless complain-fest that just opened at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. The second is that the show's author and sole performer, David Black, is about as good a writer and actor as he was a producer.

During his 19-year career, Black produced only one bona fide hit, The Impossible Years (1965, 670 performances), and one slightly more questionable one, George M! (1968, 433 performances); his other 13 shows averaged about 34 performances each. While not exactly an abominable track record, it's not great, and it probably won't effectively fill an hour or so of stage time. What of interest could Black have to tell anyone, short of juicy Broadway gossip?

But the show is even missing that insider viewpoint - you won't learn much about show business (aside from its high failure rate) or major personalities involved in it, and Black isn't willing to name names, even when warranted; this results in a frustratingly flavorless evening. Oh, he does detail some of his financial losses (his 1972 revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum lost $500,000, and his musicalized Lysistrata that same year lost $900,000), and there's a mildly amusing anecdote about his attempts to keep the 1980 flop Fearless Frank afloat while locked in a room at the Waldorf, but that's as exciting as the show gets.

Black's years on Broadway constitute only one portion of the evening, however. He spends the first third of the show discussing his troubled youth (when he failed at, among other things, opera, marriage, and impressing his mother) and the last third recounting his only consistently successful venture, painting. All of these stories are put across with an impeccably monotonous delivery (he occasionally tries to impersonate others' voices, to little effect), and with almost unrelieved world-weary detachment. (It doesn't help that Black is so heavily miked that he at times appears to be lip-synching.)

Director Craig Belknap's contributions are scarcely in evidence - Black often just wanders about the stage, now sitting, now standing, now moving a chair, now avoiding eye contact with the audience. Tal Sanders designed not only the homey set, but also the lighting and the clever projections that support Black's story with examples echoing his own artistic output. (A selection of his paintings is even displayed in the lobby after the show, providing the evening's biggest thrills.)

These elements help make Falling Off Broadway visually interesting, but in any one-man show it all comes back to the writer/performer and Black simply is not up to the challenge; he needs significant help finding, clarifying, and shaping the show. Focusing on the more colorful parts of his producing life - the show's ostensible subject, judging by the title - would not be a bad idea; nor, for that matter, would a few more acting and speech lessons. (Believe it or not, Black has a standby, Tony Campisi; that makes this one of the few autobiographical one-man shows that might play better when the billed star is out.)

Despite the show's other problems, Black does dispense some good advice. "The most important thing in life," he relates early on, "is not what you believe, it's what you do with what you believe." That's good advice for anyone, and Black might have done well to follow it himself in constructing this show. Even more telling is when he later informs us that the key to success on Broadway is the producer; Falling Off Broadway demonstrates that, Off-Broadway, that's every bit as important. David Merrick's one-man show likely wouldn't have been this boring.

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Playwrights Horizons
Falling Off Broadway
Through February 20
Running Time: 65 minutes with no intermission
Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4200