An Englishman in New York

Bill Kenwright's Broadway debut is a superb production of The Glass Menagerie. So why did it fall foul of the all-powerful New York Times critic? Paul Taylor reports from opening night
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It's 12 noon on a glorious spring day in Manhattan. Later in the evening, the curtain will go up on Bill Kenwright's Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie, starring Jessica Lange and Christian Slater, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Now, though, the prolific British producer and fanatically devoted chairman of Everton Football Club is sitting with me, knocking back fizzy mineral water. The scene: the absurdly vast and imposing lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel, a location that's a touch incongruous, given the legendary lack of "side" shown by this Liverpool lad made good. His mood: a blend of quietly meditative amusement and faintly fretful fatalism.

It's 12 noon on a glorious spring day in Manhattan. Later in the evening, the curtain will go up on Bill Kenwright's Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie, starring Jessica Lange and Christian Slater, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Now, though, the prolific British producer and fanatically devoted chairman of Everton Football Club is sitting with me, knocking back fizzy mineral water. The scene: the absurdly vast and imposing lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel, a location that's a touch incongruous, given the legendary lack of "side" shown by this Liverpool lad made good. His mood: a blend of quietly meditative amusement and faintly fretful fatalism.

"Yes, it is absolutely peculiar," laughs Kenwright when I ask him about the oddity of New York first-night protocol. In London, the press night and official first night coincide, creating an awkward cross between an overdressed jamboree and an underdressed judicial hearing, the critics jostling with the celebrities and the backers. In New York, there are four or five specially designated previews for reviewers.

The theory is that this spreads the risk, rendering the show less vulnerable to the hazards of the single occasion. In practice, though, The New York Times has a virtual monopoly, so the verdict of its critic (the current incumbent is Ben Brantley) is the only one that matters. Kenwright admits that there was "a collective sigh of relief" when he'd been and gone.

On the day of an opening, a London producer still has everything to play for, and can fuss and fine-tune to his heart's content. On the day of a New York opening, a producer is suspended in a nerve-racking limbo. The reviews have already been filed (I had e-mailed my - as it turns out, highly favourable - notice to The Independent at 5am that morning). All he can do is fight his way through the flashbulbs at the fashionable premiere and try to enjoy the party until the reviews hit the newsstands.

I was keen to look at Broadway from the perspective of an experienced British producer: one who, though he has previously taken many shows to New York ( Dancing at Lughnasa, Medea and others, and Festen to come in the autumn), has on this occasion originated a production in the city. And I was also keen to experience in vicarious close-up, so to speak, what it is like for a producer to go through the peculiar ritual of trial by the New York press. To that end, I would be breaking the habit of a lifetime and attending the first night party.

Why has Kenwright chosen to create this production (beautifully staged by the English director, David Leveaux) on Broadway rather than on home turf? "I owed it to Jessica Lange," he reveals, adding that Lange is "a very classy and a very loyal lady". The two-time Oscar winner's loyalty is illustrated by the way she has stuck with Kenwright despite considerable temptation. She had already played Blanche Dubois for him, and was supremely haunting as the morphine-addicted mother in his West End production of Long Day's Journey into Night.

The plan had been to take the latter to Broadway, "but then, from what was a genuine mistake rather than anything underhand, it turned out that the rights had been given to another producer as well as to me". The other producer took precedence - and indeed offered the role to Lange in his version. "She could have had a triumph," Kenwright says, but preferred to remain faithful to the original team. Indeed, the pair have further plans: "After this run, she's going to star for me in a film based on Colette's Chéri, adapted and directed by Christopher Hampton."

In the late stages of rehearsal for The Glass Menagerie, though, the production dramas threatened to rival those invented by Tennessee Williams. The role of Tom Wingfield, the son through whose eyes we relive the events in this memory play, had gone to Dallas Roberts, an actor who had just finished playing in Caryl Churchill's A Number opposite Lange's husband, Sam Shepard. But after the technical rehearsal, Roberts departed in distressing circumstances for which the euphemism "artistic differences" will have to suffice.

Setbacks in New York are nothing new to Kenwright. Indeed, you could say that his learning curve as a producer has been steeper in NYC than in London. Raising objections to the inflated Tommy Tune staging of his first Broadway co-production, a transfer of Stepping Out, he found himself barred from the theatre by Tune, who decreed that his presence would be "unconstructive". "You'll notice that there are about 18 producers' names above the title in shows over here," Kenwright says. Is that a bit like trying to get a play written by 18 rival authors? "No," answers Kenwright drily, "because most of them don't give a damn about the content. It's just an investment."

Then there was the famous emergency rescue of the Broadway transfer of the musical Blood Brothers. Standing ovations every night; stinking reviews. "The theatre owner, Gerry Schoenfeld, told me, 'No show in the history of Broadway has survived the panning you got,'" Kenwright says. Though custom began to climb slowly thanks to huge adverts and word of mouth, it wasn't enough and the production faced eviction from the building. Necessity was the mother in this case of bare-faced invention. "I said, 'But I've got David Cassidy coming in, and Petula Clark.' I hadn't a clue whether either was available..." But they were, and the rest is Broadway history.

Kenwright is in two minds about New York theatre culture. "I love celebration, and they really know how to celebrate and promote theatre. 'Here for the Tonys, Mr Kenwright?' they ask when I show my passport." But there's a downside to this almost sports-like attitude; someone has to be seen to lose. "The feeling is that Broadway can't sustain too many hit plays," he says.

Which is tricky for this Menagerie. Also just opened is a terrific production (by another English director, Anthony Page) of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. A blowsy, booming blend of ball-breaker and earth mother, Kathleen Turner is Edward Albee's Martha to the manner born, and she's partnered to perfection by Bill Irwin, whose sensitive and very funny George is all nippy, darting needlework, in comic contrast to her broad, squiffy brushstrokes.

The fear is that The New York Times, having raved about her, will not have room in its heart for Lange, whose performance is equally brilliant, an exquisite study in the drawling self-deception and oppressive nostalgia of a faded Southern belle.

So, to the first night party at the Bryant Park Grill. Oh, look, there's Sam Shepard. And there's Thelma Holt and Richard Wilson, in town to size up theatres for Antony Sher and Primo, the Broadway transfer of which Holt is co-producing with Kenwright. And suddenly here's Kenwright himself, looking a bit flushed and wearing a brave, if understandably watery, smile.

"It's not good," he discloses. Ben Brantley's review is out, and the fears prove well-founded. The critic wrote: "Ms Lange captures Amanda's injured quality. But she summons the combination of heroic vitality and bitterness that Williams describes in the script only in the play's final moments... As the Gentleman Caller who comes to dinner, Josh Lucas turns in a strangely contemporary goofy performance... It could be argued (by a deconstructionist in a really good mood) that since everyone in The Glass Menagerie is lonely, this medley of conflicting acting styles appropriately underscores the characters' isolation. But the sum effect is without emotional impact. The situation is hardly improved by Leveaux's having all the Wingfields caressing, kissing and clutching one another as much as they do. Incest is not what Williams had in mind here even as subtext..."

It's not my place to quarrel in detail with this critic's notice. He has every right to his opinion. What is dismaying is its finality in a city where one paper - and hence one reviewer - are kings. In London, there's a democratic hubbub of critical voices. One would have thought that a paper as distinguished and democratic as The New York Times would want, faute de mieux, to create just such a hubbub within its own pages, perhaps by employing four critics of equal standing who could review openings in rotation. Apparently, Brantley has a history of not caring for David Leveaux's productions. One man's temperamental reaction is, in the circumstances, absurdly elevated into an ex cathedra pronouncement, unto which an entire city hearkens.

"In London, we're in general out to make a living rather than a killing, and there's a sense in which everybody pulls together to try to make the theatre live," says Kenwright, leaving implicit the contrast with New York. His production of The Glass Menagerie, whose chin - and whose box-office takings - are satisfyingly high in spite of Brantley, will eventually transfer to the West End, where English audiences, subjected to a variety of opinions, will be better able to make up their own minds.

'The Glass Menagerie', Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York, to 16 July (00 1 212 239 6200)

Comments