'On the Waterfront' is no contender as it bombs on stage

David Usborne@dusborne
Friday 05 May 1995 23:02


in New York

The show does not always go on. After a run of only a week, a $3m (£1.88m) stage production of the 1950s film classic On the Waterfront will close tomorrow, making it the costliest non-musical flop ever on Broadway.

Considered by most critics to have been ill-conceived, it was an attempt to transpose to the theatre the original Oscar-laden movie about crime, love and redemption on the Manhattan docks starring Marlon Brando as the longshoreman who challenges union corruption.

Written by the film's screenwriter, Budd Schulberg, the stage version has no notable stars. And the omens were bad. The director and two of lead actors left before the curtain went up, citing unspecified "artistic reasons". An actor in a minor role had a heart attack on stage in the final preview last weekend. It took the audience several minutes to realise his collapse was not part of the script.

Then came the last week's reviews. "Splash . . . gurgle . . . gurgle . . . gurgle", began the New York Post's critic. The New York Times likened it to "seeing what happens when a Rolex of a film is taken apart for no special aesthetic reason, then put back together with much of its mechanism missing". The production, "moves as if it feels hurt".

The clobbering of Waterfront has coincided with Vesuvian eruptions of praise for other newcomers to Broadway, including, from Britain, the Almeida's Hamlet, starring Ralph Fiennes, and the National Theatre's Les Parents Terribles (renamed Indiscretions here) with Kathleen Turner in the lead role alongside Eileen Atkins and Roger Rees.

The theatre critic for the New York Observer jokingly suggested that had Ms Turner been cast in the Brando role of Terry Malloy, then Waterfront might have survived. "The thing was ill-fated and an act of absolute folly", the Observer argued. "You can't budget a straight play at $3m. You will never get your money back unless you have at least one star."

The play's lead producer, Mitchell Maxwell, admitted he was "extremely disappointed" that feeble ticket sales had forced the early closure. Of his own future: "I'll spend more time with my kid. I'll go to the gym, lift weights - and when I drop them, I'll think of the critics they might be landing on."

For the investors, the curtain's fall represents a huge financial bust. The only chance for any return would be a touring version or a London run. But there are no such plans at present.

For Mr Schulberg, at least, consolation will be available at any self- respecting video store.

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