New York theatergoers faced a gimmicky season this winter. Though everyone loves the falling chandelier in “The Phantom of the Opera,” discerning audiences know that fancy tricks often serve as unnecessary distractions from the story. While the disastrous Broadway preview period for “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” proved clever stage tricks still win press attention, it also unwittingly showed that plays resort to gimmicks to compensate for deeper flaws.
Almost 30 years after the original Broadway debut of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” dismissing the beloved classic for its cheap tricks will no doubt strike loyal audience members as hopelessly snobbish. Still, the show was an early concept piece. Based on Charles Dickens’ unfinished murder-mystery novel, the script requires audience members to vote for one of 400 possible endings. The Roundabout Theater Company’s recent revival thrills audiences with its absurd musical numbers and lavish set, but in 2013, “Drood” seems dated. Its overworked conceit is insufficient to carry the play.
Similarly, the Transport Group Theater Company contributed its puttering “House for Sale” to this year’s Broadway season, and the usually successful Atlantic Theater Company made a serious misstep with “The Jammer.” The Transport Group presented five actors on a stage, repetitively reciting a Jonathan Franzen essay. Each actor was assigned a color. A lighting technician randomly switched the stage light colors, and the actor whose color was shining recited a paragraph. Then another actor got a turn at the same paragraph. Needless to say, the theatrical production made little improvement on the essay.
The Atlantic Theater Company’s breach wasn’t as egregious, but one still wonders what they were thinking. “Jammer” would have been an acceptable, if juvenile, comedy if not for the inexplicable decision to have cardboard cutouts portray half the characters. Perhaps this gimmick was meant to comment on a long-lasting economic slump that barred the company from hiring actors?
Please, New York, give us back sophisticated, sincere theater. Forget the fancy sets and weird ideas. New Yorkers want good actors. New Yorkers want fine scripts.
But then they’ll change their mind again. New York got Patti LuPone in a David Mamet play late last year. The script was ascetic, the acting austere. “The Anarchist” was a show without entertaining frills or silly intellectualisms. Praise aside, “The Anarchist” was plain boring. Bring on the gimmicks?
— Leora Rosenberg
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