Whether intended or not, Broadway has finally and firmly become a four season enterprise. Gone are the days when little non-entity shows opened during the summer, while openings in January and February were avoided like the plague, and long-running shows offered deep, deeper and deepest discounts. The summer shift took place way back when Hairspray opened some years back in August and nothing else of significance opened anywhere near it. The future Tony Award winner had a clear field to establish itself and win fans far and wide. Who took a hint from that success? Xanadu!
The winter shift took longer, but with institutional theaters safely opening shows in the dead of winter, thanks to their substantial subscriber lists, independent Broadway producers watched with envy as theatergoers donned their galoshes and Marmots and headed for the Great Cold Way. Then came the stagehands' strike this Fall that drove The Little Mermaid's opening into January. And, lo and behold, look what else was opening in January: November, a hit comedy by David Mamet with Nathan Lane - nothing low profile about that! Those two major shows were joined by two more Broadway openings from the not-for-profit sector, The Roundabout's 39 Steps and MTC's Come Back, Little Sheba. Four Broadway openings in January? Times have changed.
And there is no turning back. Disney may have its own little island of reality; The Little Mermaid is going to do business with or without reviews, and regardless of season. One might suggest that November is a special case as well, because of its political timeliness, but we don't buy that. The election isn't until next November; the producers of the show could have waited if they wanted to. We suggest they didn't want to wait because opening in March and April would have put them in a bouquet of Broadway openings, and who is to say which flower will get lifted from the bunch? In January, however, it's the only new straight Broadway play and it gets all of the press that would have otherwise been fractionated by a flood of openings in the Spring. In other words, the savvy November producers have guaranteed their production two strong months of sales and word of mouth before they have any major competition.
We previously wrote about The Little Mermaid in this column, but here are some thoughts about the other three January Broadway shows ...
The 39 Steps: A smart import for the Roundabout. Cheap to produce, buys them time between their own home-grown productions, and it just might make them a bundle. The show has gotten great reviews, has excellent word of mouth, and looks like a keeper. Makes a nice companion piece with the Mel Brooks movie, High Anxiety. To be sure, the show is slight and almost entirely forgettable, but it is also charming, intelligent, and playful - with the emphasis on play. It's just the kind of deep winter frolic that makes you glad you got out of your apartment.
Come Back Little Sheba: All the pre-opening talk was about S. Epatha Merkerson. After you see the show, if you're not talking about Kevin Anderson, you didn't see the same play we saw. Somebody needs to say this: Kevin Anderson is Broadway's least heralded best actor. He never gives anything less than a stellar performance - even in Brooklyn he was mesmerizing. In this classic Inge play, he is astonishing. That's a Tony Award performance if ever we've seen one.
November: There was a time on Broadway when political satire was a regular occurrence. Happy is the day that it has returned. But who knew that David Mamet was this funny? Nathan Lane can make mediocre material sound hilarious, but give him the kind of script that Mamet and his associates have written and you've got yourself a piece of work that George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart might joyfully salute. Kudos also to Laurie Metcalf and Dylan Baker for their excellent supporting performances. One suspects this will run for as long as Nathan is in it. As Kaufman, himself, said, "Satire dies on a Saturday night." But not Nathan Lane.
The onslaught of Broadway openings in January and February has had its effect on Off and Off-Off Broadway, as well. This used to be a time when Off and Off-Off Broadway could have the field to themselves and get a little bit of press attention. It's going to be harder for them to do that from now on. Not that they have a choice in the matter. They're just going to have to be smarter in how they go about their business ...
A case in point: The Clockwork Theatre Company wisely picked a play that already had a certain amount of cache. It's called Apartment 3A and it was written by the well-known stage and screen star, Jeff Daniels. Right from the start, that's mighty intriguing. Plus, it was done originally in New York at the Arclight Theatre a few years ago. We caught that production so we were automatically curious to see how this company might tackle the tricky storytelling of this spiritually compelling romantic comedy.
At its root, the play is a romantic triangle, but the quirky story and off-beat humor that permeate the telling tend to cleverly obscure that fact. The triangle consists of our heroine, Annie (Marianna McClellan), a young idealistic woman who works for a public TV station and just might be on the verge of a nervous breakdown; her new married neighbor Donald (Doug Nyman), across the hall; and her innocent and adoring co-worker, Elliot (Jay Rohloff). It would be criminal on our part to divulge those elements that make this triangle so quirky and off-beat. Trust us, however, when we say that director Owen M. Smith keeps the piece afloat through tight, honest interplay between the show's handful of characters. He is helped immeasurably by the deliciously innocent and undeniably charming performance of Jay Rohloff.
Apartment 3A is richer and fundamentally more profound than it appears; it has more on its mind than boy meets girl. It's part of this playwright's considerable craft, however, that he makes the boy meets girl aspects of the show great fun even while he gently reveals some greater truths.
Bravo to the Clockwork Company for bringing this play back and giving it a new life on Theatre Row.
-- Barbara and Scott Siegel