“Airline Highway” Begins Broadway Performances

MTC Produces a Broadway Play by a Female Writer

airline highwayThe Manhattan Theatre Club has been receiving a lot of criticism for their failure to produce a play on Broadway by a female playwright over the past two years. For the first time, they broke that streak with the production of Lisa D’Amour’s Airline Highway, which began previews at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on April 1, 2015. The show opened on April 23, 2015, and is scheduled to run until June 14, 2015. Lisa D’Amour is a renowned playwright, but this is the first time her work has been seen on Broadway. Her other plays include Nita & Zita, for which she received an Obie Award in 2003, Terrible Things, for which she received MAP Fund award in 2008, and Ten Thousand Things, for which she received the award for Best New Play from the Austin Critics’ Circle in 2002. Her play Detroit was scheduled to be produced on Broadway, but it was instead produced Off-Broadway by Playwrights Horizons in 2012-2013. This is therefore a great achievement for her work to finally be seen by a wider audience. Airline Highway is directed by Joe Mantello, whose many Broadway directing credits include An Act of God, The Last Ship, Casa Valentina, I’ll Eat You Last: A Conversation with Sue Mengers, and The Other Place.

A Gathering in a Run Down New Orleans Motelairline highway

Airline Highway takes place in New Orleans, where Lisa D’Amour was formerly a Carnival Queen. She utilizes her firsthand knowledge of the crazy range of characters in that town to craft this play. The concept of the play is an all-night party that the friends throw for their friend in honor of her death, before she has died. This pal is Miss Ruby, who lays upstairs on her deathbed, and then eventually makes it down to the parking lot party, with her bed in tow. She was a kind of maternal figure to all these tragic souls, and they are celebrating her life with a preemptive funeral. The other characters include Sissy Na Na, a wise and learned transvestite who will take on the matriarchal role once Miss Ruby has passed. We also meet the motel manager, a man who does odd jobs at the motel, and a variety of hippies and outcasts who form a tight knit community.

Difficulty Catching Hold at the Box Office

This little known play by a little known writer is having a tough time making tracks at the box office. In the last reported week of box office figures, the week ending April 26, 2015, the show only brought in $126,468, which represents 23.44% of its gross potential. In the week prior, the show reached its peak thus far with a weekly gross of $144,334, which represents 24.49% of the show’s gross potential. The average paid ticket has ranged between $29.08 and $37.42, showing a heavy amount of discounting. And yet they are still not managing to completely fill up the audience, as this last week had an average audience capacity of 86.7%. The peak in terms of audience capacity was the week before, at an average of 90.8%. Because this play is produced by Manhattan Theatre Club, it will likely survive this difficult string of box office losses, but it will still not be easy to last until June if sales don’t pick up.

“Constellations” Concludes Its Run

Last Performance March 15, 2015

constellations-large-643x441On March 15, 2015, Constellations played its last performance at Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club, Constellations began performances on December 16, 2014 and officially opened on January 13, 2015. Upon closing, it had played 76 performances on top of 29 preview performances. The play starred Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson, both making their Broadway debuts. Constellations is a new play by Nick Payne, a British writer whose last New York production, If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, also starred Jake Gyllenhaal, but that time Off-Broadway in a Roundabout Theatre Company production. Constellations was directed by Michael Longhurst, who also directed the Roundabout play. This two-hander play premiered in London at the Royal Court Theatre in 2012, after which it transferred to the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End. It earned strong reviews as well as the covetous honor of Best Play in the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, marking Nick Payne as the youngest writer whose play has ever received that honor. At one point, Payne disclosed that a film adaptation was in the works, but that plan has since been shelved according to a later interview.

Moderate Performance at the Box Officeconstellations

Over the course of its run, Constellations performed fairly well but not excellently at the box office. The highest weekly gross was earned in the closing week of performances, amounting to $704,605, which represents 85.83% of the gross potential. That week, the average ticket price was $120.53, and the audience was at an average 99.9% capacity. Furthermore, in the final three weeks of performances (as well as one week in January), Constellations played nine performances, whereas it had played three weeks of only seven performances each in the first month of its run. It is unclear whether this is due to scheduling conflicts, or designed so as to allow the performers to warm up to the heavy schedule. In any case, throughout the run, the weekly gross was more often around $500,000 per week, with the average paid ticket across the run being $98.87. Furthermore, the percentage reached of gross potential each week averaged out to 67.87%. Therefore, the show could have certainly performed better at the box office, but this is also not bad for a straight play with a small cast and no brand name title recognition, although it may have been thought to fare better due to the starry cast.

Overall Extremely Positive Reviews

Despite the only moderate success at the box office, the theatre critics loved Constellations. Following its opening night on January 13, 2015, the rave reviews poured in. Ben Brantley of The New York Times found the play to be gorgeous and emotionally devastating, praising the excellent performances and writing. Other critics were wowed by the production as well, including Time Out New York, Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, and NBC New York. Therefore, this goes to show that not all plays get the box office response that they deserve, but fortunately many people were able to catch this brilliant production in its New York rendition.

“Constellations” Opens on Broadway

Jake Gyllenhaal Reunites With Playwright Nick Payne

constellations-large-643x441On December 16, 2014, Constellations began previews at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, the Broadway venue for Manhattan Theatre Club. The play opened on January 13, 2015 to unanimously positive reviews. The play is a two-hander starring Academy Award nominee Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountatin) and Golden Globe winner Ruth Wilson (The Affair). This production reunited Gyllenhaal with the playwright Nick Payne as well as the director Michael Longhurst, who all worked together on a Roundabout Theater Company Off-Broadway production of Payne’s play If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet in 2012. Both Payne and Longhurst are British theatre artists of great acclaim; Payne’s accolades include raves for Wanderlust and the Evening Standard Best Play Award for Constellations, and Longhurst has received great acclaim for his direction of works including Bad Jews, The World of Extreme Happiness, and Stovepipe.

The Critics Agree: This Show Is Phenomenalconstellations

Ben Brantley in The New York Times called Constellations “gorgeous” and the “most sophisticated” date play ever to be seen on Broadway. He commended the play for making physics seem sexy, and congratulated the production on inflating to fit the scale of Broadway beautifully. Adam Feldman in Time Out New York likewise loved the play, calling it “convincing,” lauding Gyllenhaal and Wilson for being “multiversatile,” and deeming Payne’s play smart without being dry. Marilyn Stasio in Variety found the play “dreamy” and “graceful,” comparing it to If/Then as another “Sliding Doors” style drama but deeming it much more successful at the approach. David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter found the play “rich” and “emotionally direct,” distinguishing him from other British playwrights and deeming him a level above. In addition, Roberth Kahn from NBC New York praises the play as a solid entry into the canon of “multiverse” plays. Finally, Matt Windman from AM New York was more on the fence, but he entered the play skeptically unsure of why Gyllenhaal had such a thing for British playwright Nick Payne.

Will The Numbers Match the Buzz?

In the reported box office figures thus far, Constellations is off to a moderate start. Still, it should be noted that these weeks of figures do not yet take into account the effect of the post-opening reviews, as the last reported week ended on January 11, 2015, two days before Constellations’ opening night. In the week, the show brought in $336,203 over 7 performances, which represents 56.66% of the gross potential. In the week prior ending in January 4, 2015, the show brought in $478,445, representing 70.39% of the gross potential, which was the highest percentage yet. It is to be expected that these unanimously positive reviews will have some impact, even if moderate, on ticketbuyers. It has been noted before that positive reviews British plays tend to have a greater impact than their American counterparts even when comparably reviewed, perhaps as theatregoers are awaiting the American press’ response before deeming the ticket worth buying, or perhaps just because they hadn’t even heard of the play before it hits the papers.

“The Country House” Closes on Broadway

A Limited, but Extended, Run

country houseOn September 9, 2014, The Country House began previews at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway venue, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The show had its official opening on October 2, 2014. Yesterday, November 23, 2014, the show played its final performance of the run. Though the show opened to mixed reviews and consistently brought in less than remarkable results at the box office, it extended from its originally announced closing date of November 9, 2014. If this were a normal commercial Broadway production mounted by independent commercial producers, then the show would have been likely to close early, rather than to extend. However, as MTC has a unique advantage by being a not-for-profit theatre institution with the capacity to produce on Broadway, it is able to rely on its endowment as well as its base of subscribers to sell a certain number of tickets, as well as to float through financial losses. The only other organization that rivals MTC in this advantage is the Roundabout Theatre Company, which has three venues on Broadway: the American Airlines Theatre, Studio 54, and the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.

Blythe Danner as Anna Patterson

In The Country House, Blythe Danner stars as a woman named Anna Patterson, a glamorous actress who is frustrated by the tensions ofcountry house a play she is in at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in rural Massachusetts. The play is written by Donald Margulies, an MTC regular whose past works have included Time Stands Still, Brooklyn Boy, and Sight Seen. The director was Daniel Sullivan, who has helmed such Broadway productions as The Snow Geese, Orphans, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Columnist, and The Merchant of Venice. Starring alongside Blythe Danner were Kate Jennings Grant (The Lyons), Eric Lange, David Rasche (To Be or Not To Be, Getting and Spending), Sarah Steele (Off-Broadway’s Russian Transport), and Daniel Sunjata (Macbeth, Cyrano de Bergerac). The play transferred to Broadway after a successful run at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse where its world premiere occurred on June 11, 2014. Almost the entire cast, including Danner, traveled with the show from LA to New York.

A Semi-Flop, But Good Enough

It is a sad state of the industry that a play that receives consistently mediocre reviews can still be produced on Broadway, simply due to the experience of the writer and director, as shepherded by an established theatre institution, as well as the simple name of one famous actor headlining the cast. In this case, Donald Margulies has had some great successes, but The Country House is not truly one of them. However, an organization like MTC would rather turn to a tried and true writer with an uninteresting new play, believing they can satisfy their subscriber base and continue to appear cutting edge. However, the reality is that it is the least innovative approach the organization can take, and they are faced with their own kind of internal bureaucracy. It appears that it is actually up to independent producers to blaze through the established norms to try out daring productions such as The River and One Man, Two Guvnors, which manage to fly on their own merits.

“The Country House” Opens on Broadway

Mixed to Negative Reviews

country houseOn October 2, 2014, The Country House opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Broadway Theatre. It had been running in preview performances since September 9, 2014. Starring Blythe Danner as Anna Patterson, a leading lady at the Williamstown Theater Festival, this new play by Donald Margulies (Time Stands Still, Brooklyn Boy, Dinner With Friends) premiered at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse this past summer before transferring to Broadway. Critics were much less taken with this Broadway production in the big leagues than they seemed to have been in Los Angeles, as no reviewer gave it a rave. Ben Brantley of The New York Times praised the performance of Danner, but outed it as a flimsy script relying on the leading lady to sell its tickets. Marliyn Stasio in Variety said the play, just as its characters accused each other of being, is not interesting enough. Adam Feldman in Time Out New York called it “safe,” and declared it a much less successful Chekhov homage than last season’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang. David Finkle in The Huffington Post did not like the play at all, saying that it falls far short of the emotional and dramaturgical level of Chekhov.

Shepherded by the Manhattan Theatre Club

Donald Margulies has long been championed by one of New York’s most esteemed not-for-profit theatre institutions: the Manhattan Theatre Club. Though many of his works have received recognition far beyond the sphere of this circle, this has propelled his career and granted him a degree of access that most playwrights covet. Margulies’ first Broadway production was 1994’s What’s Wrong With This Picture?, which was a commercial production, but his next show on the Great White Way was 2004’s Sight Unseen, playing at MTC’s Biltmore Theatre. This launched a string of productions by MTC of Margulies’ work, including Brooklyn Boy (2005), Time Stands Still (2010), Collected Stories (2010), and now The Country House – and these are just his Broadway productions. As MTC is supported by an endowment from its subscribers, it can take much greater risks with the shows it chooses to produce than most Broadway producers can tackle; sometimes this leads to artistic ingenuity, but other times it leads to boring choices of not the best work by playwrights with whom MTC has a longstanding relationship. Unfortunately, The Country House seems to be the latter.

Cast and Creative Team

This production is directed by Daniel Sullivan, who also has a longstanding relationship with MTC. His productions with the theatre blythe dannercompany include Sharr White’s The Snow Geese (2013) starring Mary-Louise Parker, David Auburn’s The Columnist (2012) starring John Lithgow, David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People (2011) starring Frances McDormand, and also Donald Margulies’ 2010 production of Time Stands Still starring Eric Bogosian and Alicia Silverstone. In addition the Blythe Danner, the cast includes Kate Jennings Grant (The Lyons, Guys and Dolls), David Rasche (To Be or Not To Be, Getting and Spending), Sarah Steele (Off-Broadway’s Russian Transport), Daniel Sunjata (Macbeth, Cyrano de Bergerac), and Eric Lange (ABC’s Lost). Scenic design is by John Lee Beatty, lighting is by Peter Kaczorowski, sound is by Obadiah Eaves, and costume design is by Rita Ryack. The production does not have a scheduled closing date, but it is likely to play for the duration of the fall season.

“Casa Valentina” Begins Previews on Broadway

Tonight at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, previews will commence for the Manhattan Theatre Club production of Casa Valentina, a world premiere play written by four-time Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein.  Directed by two-time Tony Award winner Joe Mantello, the play will run for a limited engagement between April 1, 2014 and June 15, 2014, with the official opening night taking place on April 23, 2014.  Fierstein, who has seen enormous success in penning the book for musicals including Kinky Boots, Newsies, and La Cage aux Folles, has not had a straight play produced in almost thirty years.  Well, none of Harvey Fierstein’s content is ever “straight,” per say.

casa-susanna is the basis for the Casa Valentina Broadway Show

casa-susanna is the basis for the Casa Valentina Broadway Show

Casa Valentina is based on the true story of a group of New York men in the 1960s – white collar professionals with families – who vacationed in the Catskill Mountains during the summers.  Unlike most vacationers in that period, however, these men had a particular quirk: they dressed up as women.  Beyond assuming female wardrobe to a meticulous degree of detail, they also adopted the personalities of their female counterparts during the vacation.  While transvestitism has proliferated in our culture in many forms since that time, these men were truly transgressive, and yet they were still firmly embedded in conventional heterosexual culture in the course of their everyday lives.  The play introduces us to these unique individuals, and then follows them as they are confronted with a difficult choice: the opportunity to become an official organization, effectively outing their precious secret.

casa-susanna is the basis for the Casa Valentina Broadway Show

Just as interesting as the plot of the play, however, is the background of how this true story became uncovered.  Some time ago, a pair of antique collectors discovered a large collection of old photographs at a New York flea market.  When they realized that the gorgeous women depicted in the photographs were in fact men, which was not immediately obvious, they decided to publish them in a book entitled Casa Susanna.  The pictures alone tell the heartbreaking story of these conflicted souls.  However, what is exceedingly interesting is that none of the press releases about this new Broadway play refer to the original source material.

After purchasing the rights to this book of photographs, the producers Colin Callender, Robert Cole, and Frederick Zollo commissioned Harvey Fierstein to write a play based on the images.  To mitigate their risk in bringing an untried play directly to Broadway, they partnered with the Manhattan Theatre Club, and agreed to be credited as granting the production “by special arrangement.”  It is curious that the producers decided not only to change the name of the play to Casa Valentina from the original title of Casa Susanna, but also to neglect to mention the book of photographs in any press release.  Perhaps the reason was to protect the appearance of originality for Harvey Fierstein, and calling this a “world premiere” by Fierstein certainly implies that it was his idea in the first place, which it was not.

casa-susanna is the basis for the Casa Valentina Broadway Show

Of course, none of this background information would affect the quality of the play itself, which is to be seen in the coming weeks as previews unfold.  What does bode well is the extraordinary cast of Broadway stalwarts and up-and-comers, including Reed Birney, John Cullum, Gabriel Ebert, Larry Pine, and Patrick Page.  Under the skilled direction of Joe Mantello, and surely featuring Harvey Fierstein’s signature wit, this play could be a very exciting addition to the Broadway season.  Indeed, it would be a true achievement if Fierstein’s concocted narrative comes close to representing the understated yet superb beauty of the mysterious found photographs, which the producers of this play clearly do not want the audience to discover.

John Patrick Shanley’s “Outside Mullingar” Closes

Outside Mullingar, the newest play by Pulitzer Prize winner John Patrick Shanley, has concluded its run on Broadway.  The Manhattan Theatre Club produced this Irish romantic comedy at its Broadway house, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on West 47th Street.  Outside-MullingarDirected by Doug Hughes, the play began previews on January 3, 2014 and officially opened on January 23, 2014, playing its final performance on Sunday, March 16, 2014.  The play starred Debra Messing (Will & Grace) in her Broadway debut, alongside Brían F. O’Byrne (Doubt, The Coast of Utopia), Dearbhla Molloy (A Touch of the Poet, Dancing at Lughnasa), and Peter Maloney (West Side Story).

The play was a New York Times Critics’ Pick, with critic Charles Isherwood calling it “Mr. Shanley’s finest work since Doubt,” which won both the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize in 2005, and which was adapted into a feature film, also penned by Shanley, in 2008.  Taking place in the Midlands of Ireland in contemporary times, Outside Mullingar tells the story of an Irish father named Tony (Maloney), his terminally shy son Anthony (O’Byrne), and their neighbor Rosemary (Messing) who watches the years go by as she harbors a romantic devotion to Anthony.  Despite a land feud between their families, and Tony threatening to disinherit Anthony, the lovers fight their way toward some kind of stability and hope for the future.

Critics were largely supportive of this production, with The New York Times, Hollywood Reporter, and NBC all giving it raves.  Entertainment Weekly, on the other hand, called it “sweet but peculiar” and Newsday deemed it a “95-minute oddity.”  In any case, this world premiere by such a beloved playwright did fairly well in terms of attracting an audience, finishing off its run with average capacity well above 90 percent.  Though it averaged only around 50 percent in terms of reaching its gross potential, this is largely due to the Manhattan Theatre Club’s large subscription audience, who benefit from discount tickets through buying the season in bulk.  Fortunately, as this is a Broadway production mounted by a not-for-profit theatre institution, the play did not need to rely on full recoupment of its capitalization in order to deem the production a financial success.