For an industry populated by gossips, Broadway is too often a sadly tame industry. Long gone are the days of Walter Winchell and J.J. Hunsecker, when stars were unhinged and producers were savage beasts. These are the days of Disney, when risk is high, profit is higher, and everyone knows it’s smart to play nice. When the odd bit of scandal drifts down from Forty-Second Street—a Spider-Man, say, or a Rebecca—we gobble it up like starving men. And now, Broadway has given us something new to chew on.
On February 20th, the producers of the upcoming Broadway drama Orphans announced that they had lost one star. Due to unnamed reasons, Shia LaBeouf departed the show after a week of rehearsal, leaving co-star Alec Baldwin to stand alone. As soon as the agonizingly brief press release went out, the rumor mill began to churn.
The story that emerged was not quite as good as Jeremy Piven’s tuna overdose in 2008, but it has proven to be a nice story of (depending on how you read it) LaBeouf’s Hollywood cowardice or Baldwin’s New York madness. The details have emerged courtesy of LaBeof’s delightful habit of tweeting photos of emails. In the first exchange, released a few weeks ago, director Daniel Sullivan said that the two actors “are incompatible,” and that “this one will haunt me.” Baldwin replied to console him, saying “I’ve been through this before.”
That last is a reference to his 2006 production of Entertaining Mr. Sloane, when co-star Jan Maxwell quit after Baldwin put his fist through a wall. LaBeouf did the same thing during rehearsals for Orphans, but he did it in character. Although Baldwin has a history of scaring off co-stars, his reputation remains untarnished, with Broadway preferring to fire parting volleys at the retreating Transformers star. Michael Riedel quotes sources saying that LaBeouf’s “performance in the rehearsal room was ‘erratic’ to the point of being ‘volatile.’”
Since then, LaBeouf has been replaced by Ben Foster—the creepy kid from Six Feet Under—and Broadway is placid again. Asked about LaBeouf’s flight, Baldwin has been faux-charitable, saying theater “isn’t for everyone,” and explaining to New York Magazine that he doesn’t really care what LaBeouf thinks about, uh, anything.
And many film actors, though, who are purely film actors, they’re kind of like celebrity chefs, you know what I mean? You hand them the ingredients, and they whip it up, and they cook it, and they put it on a plate, and they want a round of applause. In the theater, we don’t just cook the food and serve it. You go out in the garden and you plant the seeds and you grow it. You know, it’s a really very, very long, slow, deliberate — it’s the opposite of film acting.
Baldwin: “We start Monday. But I’m so fucking tired.”
LaBeouf: “I’m a hustler. I don’t get tired. I’m 26, chief.”
Baldwin: “Listen, boy. I’m not your fuckin’ chief. You got that? Ha. Hahahahaha. Let’s go.”
What does this tell us about the creative process of famous actors? Nothing. But it’s a nice reminder that most actors are children at heart, incapable of letting someone else have the last word. Shia LaBeouf is clearly not cut out from Broadway, and it was good of him to quit the show as soon as he realized that. Remember—he didn’t force these producers to cast him. They picked him for the sake of name recognition, and nothing more. If he’s being excoriated for cutting and running, I think it’s because the critical establishment feels like it’s been cheated out of a pan.
And Alec Baldwin? Well, I’m happy to see that in private email conversations, he’s just as crazy as I like to imagine. If LaBeouf thinks he can turn New York against Baldwin with screenshots of fairly innocuous emails, he’s proved something I’ve long said about film actors. A job that requires you to work for no more than 45 seconds at a time does not do much for your capacity for critical thought.