December 5, 2012

Times theater critic Charles Isherwood caused a stir this week with an essay about the craven behavior of the producers of Glengarry Glen Ross, who used Hurricane Sandy as an excuse to postpone the official opening of their show by a month. While some imaginative conspiracy theorists have fantasized that this was simply a ploy to give marquee star Al Pacino a bit more time to learn his lines, Isherwood paints a more cynical picture, of producers selling high-priced tickets to something that is a preview-in-name-only, allowing them to rake in around $1 million weekly without having to face potential critical wrath.

Sure, shows are always in the process of refinement during previews, and casts are rehearsing changes during the day that are incorporated into the show at night. But “Glengarry” is not a new play; Mr. Sullivan is a highly proficient director; and the show’s cast is made up of sterling stage performers. In theory, all artists would probably like the luxury of running for a couple of months before opening their doors to critics, but few to none have the comfortable cushion of cash that “Glengarry” has amassed.

The decision to postpone was, in my view, a cynical move inspired by the knowledge that good critical notices couldn’t possibly make the show a hotter ticket — it was a hot ticket already — and while bad ones might slightly have dampened sales, more crucially, they might also put the actors in a bit of a funk.

When news came this week that Mamet’s other show on Broadway is closing—something his plays have done a lot of lately—hiding from critics suddenly seemed like a bright idea. Reviewers hated The Anarchist—a turgid think-piece about, sigh, the nature of evil and truth and stuff—and so The Anarchist died. But Glengarry might be a special case: a serious play that doesn’t need to be reviewed, because the critics can’t affect it at all.

The cynicism of a production like this Glengarry started long before the Hurricane gave it an excuse to keep out Isherwood & co. It was conceived as a gimmick—an unnecessary revival of a show last seen on Broadway in 2005, made marketable by this season’s most egregious bit of stunt casting. Did you like Al Pacino in the film version of Glengarry, playing the hotheaded young salesman Ricky Roma? Then you’ll love him in the Jack Lemmon Part—the broken old huckster Shelley “The Machine” Levene! Poorly cast and unprepared, Pacino was dropped headfirst into a production that Bloomberg critic Jeremy Gerard—who paid for his own ticket—called “stilted and self-conscious.”

Earlier this week, the Times’ Jason Zinoman tweeted “Dear theater critics: Might be time to marshal arguments for why theaters should give you more than one free ticket. #prepareforthefuture.” To theater writers, who are accustomed to getting two comps to any show they’re curious about, this is an apocalyptic scenario. Whether the coverage is positive or negative—and in this business, it is so rarely negative—theater reporters and critics are providing free publicity for the show. An extra comp is a courtesy, and not too much to ask.

Denying critics a second ticket is a slap in the face that would, one hopes, be met with revolt. But as the full houses at Glengarry’s ongoing “previews” show, a critical revolt is not the Broadway catastrophe it once was.

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