This is a piece I wrote which was about to be published in 1994 in Theatre Week Magazine in New York. Just before it was to go to press, the New York Times theatre critic, who figures prominently in the article, left the newspaper, making the article far less intriguing than it had been when TW signed on to publish it. A couple of references are dated, but you'll get the idea.
by Jack Neary
When my play, FIRST NIGHT, opened to a standing ovation at the Westside Theatre on September 11, 1994, a number of interviews had been scheduled for the producers and me. When the review of the play appeared in the New York Times on September 12, all interest in interviewing me ceased. Abruptly.
So I thought I’d interview myself.
JN: Well, you’ve had a play produced off-Broadway. How do you feel?
Jack: I feel like I brought my child into the living room to meet the relatives for the first time, and everybody loved the kid except Uncle Dave, who has all the money.
JN: I take that to mean the Times review wasn’t good.
Jack: The Times review wasn’t a review. It was Thursday.
JN: That doesn’t make any sense.
JN: And the critic the Times sent was...?
Jack: Clearly, the one who couldn’t get a date.
JN: You’re saying he was in a bad mood?
Jack: I’m saying, judging from the tone of his review, he hadn’t had his laptop serviced since early in the Carter administration.
JN: Do you have any idea why The New York Times sent its first-string critic to review an off-Broadway opening with no stars and an unknown playwright?
Jack: It was a Sunday. The other three guys must’ve been in church.
JN: A couple of people who read the review seemed to think the Times critic had some sort of hidden agenda.
Jack: Who knows? It was excessively vitriolic. A kind of “Hey, Look what I can do, Pop!” review. My guess is that he wants to be noticed. He has his sights set next year on moving up to being Theater Week’s 21st most powerful person in the New York theater.
JN: Were you pleased with the production of your play?
Jack: Yes and no. It was staged quite well and with great care by Tony Giordano and designed beautifully by Neil Peter Jampolis. But our rehearsal period was very short and I ended up cutting the script extensively to accommodate what seemed to be emerging, in our haste, as the through line. The play had been produced very successfully before--in Boston, San Diego, many other cities--but I wish I’d had an out-of-town tryout of this version to get it ready. Or, at least, more time in previews. The cost of any extension of our time, however, was prohibitive. Whatever the show’s shortcomings might have been, they were my responsibility.
JN: So you think the cuts contributed to the show’s failure.
Jack: I’ll never know. All I do know is that the show has been a hit everywhere it’s played for eight years. It was a different show here, and it closed. The audience that showed up was extremely receptive, but it closed. The core New York audience that supports a show in its infancy didn’t come. They were warded off by the Times. However, to be truthful, I don’t think the alterations I made in the script affected the Times critic.
JN: What do you think did affect the Times critic?
Jack: The show was full of things that are simply not welcome by the major New York critics these days.
JN: Things such as...?
Jack: Oh...funny characters saying funny things in funny ways within the context of a created situation. Sounds harmless, but this is what the major critics call, correctly, “situation comedy.” It could just as easily be called “life,” but the major critics here have given themselves license to trash it as “sitcom,” regardless of how much the audience enjoys it. The gentleman writing for New York Magazine labeled the people who laughed in the FIRST NIGHT audience as those who “will laugh at anything.” Outrageously insulting. I know if I’m one of the many people who laughed a lot during a performance of FIRST NIGHT, I’m thinking twice about reading New York Magazine again. Which probably doesn’t bother the critic.
JN: Sounds a little like sour grapes on your part.
Jack: Well...duh. Of course it’s sour grapes on my part. But I’m reacting after seeing how the major reviews affected FIRST NIGHT. I believe, however, that the major critics walked into the show with their personal grapes already well-soured towards a sweet, traditional, non-musical romantic comedy. (Tapping and singing often helps them overcome the prejudice.) You want the truth--in the case of FIRST NIGHT, I think the major critics reviewed the poster.
JN: You continually refer to the “major” critics.
Jack: The two or three top guys who can make a difference. FIRST NIGHT garnered a number of good notices, some great quotes. Meant little in terms of establishing a run. Everybody wants to know what the Times thinks. Maybe New York Magazine. That’s it. It’s a shame, really. If folks had responded to the New York Post, Newsday, many of the newspapers and magazines with less influence than the Times, then we might still be running. But that’s not the way things are. The perception may be that the Times is less influential these days in terms of the power it holds over the life of a show, but my experience, at least, reflects otherwise. The summary of the Times notice that appears weekly in the Arts and Leisure section is like teenage acne. It doesn’t go away until the play has matured into a “Long Running Show.” A show won’t run long if the A & L summary attacks it Sunday after Sunday.
JN: So, what advice would you give a new playwright hoping to get a play produced successfully in New York?
Jack: Funny how nobody asks me that anymore.
JN: Is a puzzlement.
Jack: If you want to ensure yourself of a hit, schedule your opening, call the New York Times, find out who’s going to review, read all the notices he’s written in the past, determine what he likes, then re-write the play specifically for him. If possible, name a character after him. A good-looking, sympathetic character.
JN: That’s ridiculous. What about the audience?
Jack: If he likes it, they will come.
JN: But then they’ll like it only if they have his specific taste.
JN: What will that mean?
Jack: That will mean they’ll show up initially in droves, most of them will hate the play, and eventually a great many of them will stop coming to the theatre.
JN: But then the New York theatre will be in desperate trouble. Prices for the few shows left will soar. Only very rich people and couples celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversaries will come to plays. Basia and Lambchop will get their own theatres while other theatres will be dark year-round. People who want to see a Broadway play will come to town and be bitterly disappointed!
Jack: Oh, don’t worry about that. Broadway will always have Neil Simon...