Here’s a cautionary tale of two shows and the growing disconnect between Broadway and its patrons.
“Glengarry Glen Ross” opened at the John Golden Theatre in 1984, played for a year and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Now it’s in previews before a 10-week run starring Al Pacino.
The run, further shortened by a playing schedule reduced from the usual eight to seven performances a week, will send Pacino home with at least $1.25 million. The top ticket price is $377 and certain to go higher after the opening.
Movie stars bring patrons to Broadway. Let everyone make money; there’s certainly no crime in that. But “Glengarry” represents a new low in Broadway’s conversion from grand cultural bazaar offering something for everyone, to a theme park run almost exclusively by the rich for the rich.
“Glengarry” concerns swaggering desperate men who lie, charm, steal, whine, swear, connive and backstab while selling worthless Florida property to gullible marks. A scorching character study, it became a very good movie (Pacino earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in it) and had an earlier successful Broadway revival just seven years ago.
“Disgraced” opened last week at Lincoln Center Theater’s tiny Claire Tow space. If there’s a stronger contender for this year’s drama Pulitzer, I haven’t seen it.
The top ticket price for “Disgraced” -- in fact, the only ticket price at this nonprofit venue -- is $20.
“Glengarry” is one revival in a season larded with them, some mounted for no other reason but greed. That’s not to say they aren’t good or, in the case of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” definitive. (Indeed, “Virginia Woolf” is making a go of it without stars and outrageous ticket prices, and faces a tougher time at the box office.)
And I wouldn’t trade the chance to have seen last season’s “Death of a Salesman” revival with Philip Seymour Hoffman for the world.
But that show had an extended run, giving regular theatergoers a fighting chance to see what the fuss was all about. Even so, I remember standing on line at the box office watching as a man, his hand visibly trembling, passed his credit card under the bulletproof window to pay $900 for two tickets.
On Broadway, such a rich diet can only result in cultural sclerosis.
I thought of “Glengarry” the other night when I was sitting in the Tow, the smallest of Lincoln Center Theater’s stages. All the city’s subsidized theater companies run such spaces, and they’ve presented some of the best plays of the last several seasons.
“Disgraced” bristles with the same provocative power that made Mamet king of the American playwriting hill three decades ago (nothing he has written since has been so forceful).
Ayad Akhtar’s play is 90 minutes of immersion in the combustible powder keg of identity politics. Aasif Mandvi, best known as a member of Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” ensemble, stars as Amir Kapoor, a hotshot lawyer who passes as Indian rather than the Pakistani he actually is.
Amir renounces Islam yet cannot hide in a world where all Muslims, even apostates, are viewed as incipient terrorists. More importantly -- and more powerfully dramatized by the young playwright -- Amir can’t ignore the “blush of pride” he feels about 9/11 and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s vow to push Israel into the sea, even as he admits being ashamed of such feelings.
I spoke with Mandvi after the performance. He has nurtured this play for several years and hopes it will move from the Tow to a commercial venue. Perhaps even to Broadway, where tickets will undoubtedly sell for more than $20.
Like Pacino -- whose career was launched in 1968 in an off-Broadway drama called “The Indian Wants the Bronx” -- Mandvi got his start off-Broadway, in a self-written play called “Sakina’s Restaurant,” that was a hit at the American Place Theatre in 1998.
And like Pacino, he’s a theater animal who has lately made a name for himself on the larger stages of movies and TV.
But even with enthusiastic reviews, this explosive play will probably have a tough time competing for a good theater when there are producers with stars willing to parachute into Times Square, grab some cash from the privileged few who can afford their stiffest of tariffs and split in time for the next early morning shoot.
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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