David Mamet's big flop reveals truth about Broadway

Dec 7, 2012
Charles Laurence

One Mamet play flops in New York while another, starring Al Pacino, rakes it in. Coincidence? No

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ANYONE still in doubt about the legendary perils and potential rewards of investing in a Broadway show should pay a visit to West 45th Street in the heart of New York's Theatre District.

At the Schoenfeld, the seats for a play opening tomorrow have been sold out for weeks in advance despite going for an astonishing $375 apiece. That works out at more than a million bucks a week in receipts, and with the run already extended before it starts, the producers and their 'angels' are coining it.

Two theatres down the street at the Golden, a play called The Anarchist is going down as one of Broadway's fastest flops ever. Its death was announced this week after just two nights. The theatre has been half empty. The Anarchist's backers will surely lose their $2.6 million 'capitalisation'.

Here's the rub: both plays are by the same playwright, David Mamet (above), bare-knuckled giant of contemporary American theatre. They even have the same producer, Jeffrey Richards, a fact which the critics are saying might have a lot to do with the extraordinary contrast in box office fortunes.

The Schoenfeld is onto a winner with a revival of Mamet's masterpiece, Glengarry Glen Ross, a portrait of desperate salesmen and their all-American world view which won the Pulitzer prize in 1984. This revival scores even higher ticket prices because it features Hollywood megastar Al Pacino, who also starred in the 1992 film version. It would be hard to screw that one up.

The Anarchist, on the other hand, is brand new, and Mamet's recent work has been inconsistent. He is directing it himself. The play, set in a female prison, is about the confrontation between Cathy, jailed many years ago for her role in a violent anarchist group, and the parole officer who has the power to release her. The production has two stars, Patti LuPone and Debra Winger, but it's made no difference.

Ben Brantley of the New York Times called The Anarchist a "heavily embroidered slip of a play". Despite its author's reputation as "king of the explosive expletive," Brantley wrote, "the language... is as crisp and unsoiled as the sheets in a five-star hotel."

It is hard to sell tickets with that billing, and even harder with a review like this, from Jesse Oxfeld in the New York Observer: "To put it in language the playwright should understand: fuck off already, David Mamet."

Oxfeld objects to Mamet's "newfound and aggressively evangelized political conservatism". The playwright seems to have lost it, he says, his last three new Broadway outings having been "a sitcom, an artifact and now a lecture".

The question this raises is why producer Richards put the show on at all, and why he let Mamet direct it himself?

The answer has a lot to do with how Broadway works: producers need to foster relationships with hot-ticket writers, and they will pay for the privilege of putting on winners by staging the flops. As devotees of the rip-roaring comedy from Mel Brooks, The Producers, will know, profit and loss on Broadway are not necessarily what they seem.

"The demise of The Anarchist raises questions about the theater business," wrote the New York Times yesterday. "Did the lead producers' devotion to Mr. Mamet — and the hope of a lucrative Glengarry revival — mean staging a new work that wasn't right, or ready, for Broadway?

"And does Mr. Mamet, whose brawny, expletive-filled early plays remain stage mainstays decades after their debuts, still have something to say to a contemporary audience?"

The Times asked Richards "if he had no choice" but to bring The Anarchist to Broadway, given that he has been working with Mamet since the 1980s. Richards answered only that "I wanted to produce The Anarchist and so did my partners".

The "partners" were the ones taking the risk. Patti LuPone and Debra Winger lose face, and future wages, but the investors lose fortunes (and sometimes make them too).

The man who wrote Glengarry Glen Ross understands that as well as anyone. It's as American as, well, Wall Street ethics.

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