By Charlene Giannetti
Broadway or Off-Broadway plays, whether dramas or musicals, are unlike TV shows or films. Each stage performance is a little different, depending upon the actors’ moods, the audience reaction, even the weather. That’s what makes live theater so exciting. You never know what to expect. That’s also what makes live theater challenging. See a play with the understudy substituting for the lead, you may witness a real live version of 42nd Street. Or, maybe not.
With films or TV shows, the final version may go through countless rounds of editing until the director feels it works. The old joke about an actor’s best performance ending up on the cutting room floor is no joke to that particular actor. (Kevin Costner’s part was famously cut from The Big Chill). The audience, however, may have been spared several minutes of a lackluster effort. There’s no cutting once the play gets underway, although there may be adjustments between performances.
Previews are the stage equivalent of film editing. When a play is in previews, the audience is put on notice that what is on stage may undergo change, cosmetic or radical. So that brings up the question: When is the best time to see a play, while it is still in previews, so you can brag to friends that you were one of the first to see it, or when it finally opens when, presumably, rewrites, redirection, even recasting result in a changed and, perhaps, better product? When the play opens to stellar reviews, it may be impossible to get a ticket. Or, the reviews could be horrible. StubHub, anyone?
Othello, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago, and John Ortiz as Othello, photo top, is now in previews at the Public Theater. Directed by Peter Sellars (above left), who also directed Dr. Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera, the play benefits from very positive word of mouth. Hoffman, of course, is a big draw. And Sellars, billing this production as “Othello in the Age of Obama,” adds to the buzz with his YouTube commentary. Having tickets for September 12, the first preview night, was the ultimate New York experience, seeing a must-see play first. But was that evening’s performance the best an audience will see? At four hours-plus, the play was certainly long, so much so that the actors actually applauded the audience at the end. The staging was innovative (with a platform of video monitors acting as a bed), the music Dr. Atomic-like (a plus or minus depending upon how you liked the opera), and the actors superb. Will the play be altered by the time of its opening? No doubt, certainly tightened up and sped up in parts. But will it be better? Who can say? Othello has a very short run with the play opening on September 20 and closing on October 4. The play will spend half as long in previews as it will in its regular run.
Sometimes waiting until a play has found its footing turns out to be an advantage. When Pal Joey opened last year, initial reviews were mostly negative. Stockard Channing was still grappling with her part and Christian Hoff was viewed as miscast as Joey. Later in the run, however, Channing, a real pro, was soaring and Hoff’s replacement (Matthew Risch with Channing, above), benefitted from her renewed confidence. In this case, playing the waiting game was the better strategy.
In the case of Speed the Plow, however, waiting meant missing Jeremy Piven (above) in a remarkable turn as a Hollywood agent. When Piven dropped out for medical reasons, his replacement, William H. Macy, did a good job, but those who missed Piven were left watching reruns of Entourage, where he also plays a Hollywood agent.
Some shows remain remarkably consistent, even when cast changes occur. Although fans of Jersey Boys adore the OBC (original Broadway cast), subsequent casts, in New York and other cities, also have enthusiastic followings. It seems, in the end, for some people, the play is the thing, no matter the cast or the timing.