Cricket's Notebook by Larry Stark - "Winter Stock"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


Thursday, 23 February, 2000: "Winter Stock"

What is it that Judith Light, Gladys Knight, Quentin Tarantino, Matthew Broderick, Judd Hirsch, and Parker Posey all have in common?

They all have names (made in other ways) which, when hung in front of a big Broadway house here in Boston, will sell tickets

What makes a show a hit in the big Broadway houses here in Boston? Is it:
a) The Playwright
b) The Play
c) The Composer/Lyricist
d) The Length of The Broadway Run
e) The Stars
f) The Awards It Has Won
g) The Choreographer
h) The Director
I) The Television Ads

None of the above, really. A Broadway show is a hit here in Boston only when the show is completely sold out by the time you go to buy tickets. WHY that happens to be true may have something to do with one or all of the above, but no one really knows and no one really cares. Only if you can't buy tickets is the show a hit. Period.

Then why will Parker Posey, Judd Hirsch, and Matthew Broderick all be competing with one another opening two different straight plays ("Taller Than A Dwarf" and "Art") at two different theatres (Ye Wilbur and The Colonial) on the very same night (7 March) thus competing with each other for the very same finite Boston theater-going audience?

Let's ignore the obvious answer (Managerial Incompetence) and hope that their real aim is what I'd like to call Winter Stock.

Arthur Laurents in last Sunday's New York TIMES said that actors who spend too long in movies or television lose the ability to act. I remember, a little before or a little after 1950, while visiting an uncle in Provincetown, I got taken to see Basil Rathbone in "THE HEIRESS" probably at The Cape Playhouse in Denis, at a time when he was specializing in Sherlock Holmes movies. HE was going back to the stage to keep his chops sharp, as a lot of the people who went West to do Talkies actually did in the summers back then. There isn't much summer stock these days --- with famous name stars moving from company to company to do the same show for one or two weeks in half a dozen or so different resort towns --- but many of those stars from other media made it a ritual back then to go on the boards before live audiences to touch the earth from whence they came once again.

Trouble was that when first movies and then telly made people "Stars" many of them learned that doing a stock show was a lot like making just another Personal Appearance, because it never really mattered How good or how Awful you were: the fans turned out in droves just to breathe the same air you did and then get the autograph; so they weren't Really touching their roots or sharpening their tools at all, just throwing a sop of pressed-flesh to the gullible but adoring public.

Broderick and Posey are coming here in "Taller Than A Dwarf" as an old fashioned Broadway Tryout, much the way Tarantino did some time back with "Wait Until Dark" and in the same theatre; Judd Hirsch is bringing a road-company of what the flier calls a "Tony and Oliver (SIC!) Award winning comedy." But neither Yasmina Reza's or Elaine May's names (and do YOU know who wrote which play?) are near as big as those of the performers. These are non-musical straight plays after all, and they are being sold as STAR VEHICLES, and Big NAME Stars as well. The Colonial/Wilbur management is hoping that those names will flog hundreds and hundreds of people to buy up all the seats (at $65 to $45 each at The Colonial, or $61.75 to $41.50 at Ye Wilbur [where, apparently from that flier, the Discount Prices ($68.50 to $46.00) are actually the more expensive seats!]) so fast that, come second night, both big theatres will have No More Tickets Available and both shows will be hits.

That's because the Wang/Colonial/Shubert/Wilbur have been flogging only Proven Moneymakers and hotHotHOT-Tickets for so long they have squeezed all the adventurousness and all the curiosity out of the theater public here in Boston --- as well as squeezing out all the young faces. Nearly everyone who goes to Broadway shows here in Boston is my age; maybe you have to be my age to afford to spend $90 to $130 to take your wife to a play.

Of course, Emerson College handed these oh so knowledgeable marketing managers a whole Generation of kids, a big percentage of whom are either theater majors or take theater classes, but so far as I can see they have done not a single thing to make that crew of kids walk a block in either direction from their latte-bar to see any downtown plays. But then, if any of those kids had $90 to $130, wouldn't they rather spend it stoned at a rock concert than watching a straight play without even music? So why bother attracting them, right? Adventurousness and curiosity don't make hotHotHOT Tickets anymore; not in this town. Broadway in Boston only bets on sure things, and they hedge their bets with television ads, selling known commodities to familiar faces.

But maybe, just maybe, those stars whose names are so familiar (some of whom have actually spent a lot of time on live stages recently) are coming to Boston for a Winter Stock experience. I don't know if Broderick and Hirsch and Posey will really be any good at all. But I wonder, even if they ARE, whether the tele-marketed hot-ticket crowd will even care --- or even notice. They're being asked to pay for Names, after all, not performances.

I still remember the days when the smaller Wilbur was reserved for plays that were going to be Much too bad or Much too good to fill the Colonial, but they came through Boston anyway, because people here were adventurous and curious, and the nut wasn't all that large, but neither was the ticket price. Because it wasn't the famous names hung on the markee that marketing managers were selling.

It was theater.

But I remember something else. I remember interviewing a director who said that, when he was an assistant-director on a summer stock show, his main responsibility was to sit every night and get drunk with the star (D_____d K___y) who had long been a household name in radio and then in television, and to listen to his star apologise for blowing lines and blocking and screwing up everyone who went on stage with him, weeping at his acting inadequacies. And I'll paraphrase that actor's final comment every night throughout the summer's run this way:

"What I should really do is just quit this show and go back to school and learn how to act. But I can't! I'm too big a star... "

I hope that rather than just Big Name Stars, Judd Hirsh and Matthew Broderick and Parker Posey are really actors coming back on stage in front of curious, adventurous Boston audiences to touch the earth and sharpen their acting chops with a little Winter Stock.

It's happened before in this town.


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide