Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The play that went wrong from the start

I always hate to write negative reviews of projects friends of mine are in. In this case, two wonderful actors, Patrick Breen and Margaret Colin who are in the cast of Richard Greenberg’s new play, THE PERPLEXED that opened last week at the prestigious Manhattan Theatre Club. I saw a preview performance when I was in New York recently.  They both were terrific, especially considering the material they were given to work with. 

I went into it with high hopes. I want my friends to succeed, the creative team is top notch (Lynne Meadows directed), and there are so few non musical plays on Broadway that you hope a good one will spark more.

Unfortunately, THE PERPLEXED is a hot mess. It is getting terrible reviews. The NY Times hated it. I can’t imagine it’ll be around much longer.

I’m not going to review it per se because what are the chances you’ll ever see it? But what struck me and what I want to focus on is how obvious and basic the mistakes were. How many rules of common sense storytelling were broken – rules that are there for a reason (they WORK).

The play is set literally in a drawing room. But all the action (what little there is) takes place offstage in another room. There are the obligatory “bombshell” reveals but they change nothing. The exposition and relationships between the characters is utterly unfollowable. There are way too many characters, and yet the main antagonist (who drives what little story there is) is never seen. Many times the narrative just stops while two characters discuss social issues. Numerous times two characters will be doing a scene while a third character is sitting upstage reading a book. He’s in full view and earshot of the conversation but doesn’t engage. Playwriting 101 says actors HATE being onstage with nothing to do. If they don’t belong in the scene find a way to get them out. I think they teach that the first day.

Another actor disappears for an hour. When he returns you’re going “who is he again?”

The play is billed a comedy and has precious few laughs. It’s 2 hours and 30 minutes long. The characters are mostly all rich assholes and you don’t empathize with any of them. The story moves are contrived and unbelievable. There’s to be a wedding in the ballroom, but they’re holding the dinner and reception FIRST and then at midnight the couple is getting married. Huh? Why? Who does that and for what reason other than the writer needed it that way?

It also felt like the K-Tel version of today’s zeitgeist theatre topics. Diversity, immigration, LGBT, culture clashes, religion, politics – all touched on in a mish-mosh of indulgence and over importance. Check all the boxes.

Like I said, if these were mistakes by a novice playwright I would understand it. But Jesus, the Manhattan Theatre Company? Tony-winner, Richard Greenberg? Lynne Meadows? Didn’t ANYBODY step back and notice these neon glaring problems?

There was an article before the play opened in the NY Times where Greenberg & company were talking about how they used previews to really listen to the audience and sharpen the play. Really? Based on the review, nothing of any substance changed from when I saw it almost two weeks before opening. A number of audience members left at intermission the night I was there. When the lights went up for intermission someone in my row called out “This is a mess!” So what audience was Greenberg reading?

I’ve spent my life going to run-throughs and bad ones are apparent. There’s no gray area. You KNOW you have a dud on your hands and you’re going to have to rewrite the shit out of it – maybe even junk it and try for something else.

The version I saw ran 2 hours and 39 minutes. In two weeks, 6 minutes were added. This was really the Emperor’s New Play.

This is a play that exists solely because of the creative team's track record.   Maybe next time someone should READ it first.  

In the opening welcome announcements, in addition to asking the audience to unwrap their candy and turn off their cellphones, they should also say “If you’re a playwright, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.”


Pat Reeder said...

A few years ago, Laura and I were judges for a Dallas theater awards organization, which required us to see all eligible non-musical plays produced by member companies. This review brought back so many bad memories of plays that were overlong, pointless, pretentious, frustrating and boring; that had the playwright's woke politics shoehorned inappropriately into the dialogue; that were deliberately oblique ('cause that's artsy!); that had anything interesting take place off-stage, etc. etc. The only way I was able to survive some of them was by rewriting them in my head while I was watching them. But at least most of these plays had the excuse of being by young writers or experimental theater festivals, not by the Manhattan Theater Club.

On the other hand, they did try to warn you with the title.

Steely Dan said...

> When the lights went up for intermission someone in my row called out “This is a mess!”

Was it you?

She's a honey said...

I'm jealous that you're friends with the awesome Margaret Colin.

Lemuel said...

@ Pat Reeder: "Woke politics". You pretty much gave your game away with this entire post.

Rashad Khan said...

I've been a fan of Margaret Colin's since her days as Margo on "As the World Turns." She's an intelligent actor, who makes even the most ill-defined characters fascinating. (Same goes for her husband, Justin Deas, who played Tom on ATWT.) So, it kinda breaks my heart to "hear" she's in a dud of a play. Fortunately, I don't live in NYC anymore, so I can spare myself having to go see it.

She's a honey said...


What's wrong with someone pointing out their disdain for the current insanity that is woke politics/social justice warriors/snowflakes, call them what you will.

People are sick of it. When you have a student conference in the UK banning clapping because it's "triggering" for some students and instead delegates are told to use jazz hands to show their approval, then satire is well and truly dead.

I hope you also realize that if Cheers was made today, it would be savaged by the woke loons. The SJWs would go ballistic over Sam's womanizing for a start.

Dave Wrighteous said...

A COMEDY that runs over TWO AND A HALF HOURS?!??
Well, I'd imagine you could stop right there.
Sitcoms? 30 minutes. Comedic films? Around 90 minutes.
Off the top of my head the only REALLY long comedy that works is "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" at an unheard of three hours, twenty five minutes and that only holds because of the gigantic cast of comedic legends.
"Leave 'em laughing" is a pretty good rule of comedy, not "I'm really tired of laughing and could use a bathroom break and maybe a nap".
Regardless, given the reviews I guess neither of those will even apply here...

Unknown said...

is a drawing room like a sketch room?

PolyWogg said...

I confess that I feel the same every fall when I watch pilot season. I treat it almost like fantasy baseball season.

First, I read the descriptions / loglines for the new shows. Even without the remakes, there are some that are absolutely ridiculous, have already been done in other forms, and the premise never worked. Based on the premise, knowing nothing of the actors or actresses involved, I try to predict renewal or cancellation.

Second, I watch the premieres. Rarely do I change my prediction, and I don't go into it remembering my prediction, I just watch it cold. Often I don't even remember the premise from my first initial review back in September before the premiere in October sometime. Just that it is a new show.

I'm surprised by how many are "mess" from the description and "bigger mess" in the pilot, and yet the dang thing got made and there are another 8-10 episodes coming before someone reviews it and says, "WTF did we greenlight?".

Each year I also do the same with local plays. We have our national Cdn arts centre, and most of the time I pass on their English Theatre series. A little too much social relevance in the screening criteria, but I have hopes occasionally for something more commercially friendly. They have Broadway tours, but over done usually. Once in awhile they'll do something a bit different in style -- one was "jazz noir / gangster" and it was amazing, but hard to describe. Jazz themes, series of scenes intercutting the music?

Then I go through 5 different semi-professional and amateur playhouses. With 6 orchestral shows, a comedy outing, and two music outings, I still came up with 8 other plays to see. Most are decent, if amateur.

The only time I was like "WTF" was a bad casting of an Agatha Christie where the premise was the beach hotel/inn, regular family gathering, invited son, new wife and the ex-wife. In the play, the premise is new wife is femme fatale that "stole" the son from the dowdy ex-wife. 1 year later, son is having buyer's remorse for the superficial new wife. You meet the ex-wife, and she is gorgeous. Very clear why he might want her; then you meet the new wife, and she's frumpy. No way to see him taking her over his bombshell first wife. Then they introduced the protagonist -- a retired military man, quite sharp, Hercule Poirot without the mannerisms. And he's played like a doddering old fool. Badly too. I left at intermission, something I have never done before.

Yet a recent play had four actresses on the stage, and a series of 19 scenes (a Norm Foster golf play)...and the constant exits are painful. Third week of the show, and only one of the four actresses knew her lines. The others flubbed at least twice each -- but to their defence, I suppose, they are amateurs AND there is no continuity between scenes to know which snippet comes next (unlike a normal play). Some scenes don't connect to the others linearly.

I like to think even for the bad ones, the people IN THEM knew they were bad. But I suspect some are just happy to be there...?


Buttermilk Sky said...

OT: Mart Crowley, who wrote THE BOYS IN THE BAND, has died at age 84. The obituary in the Guardian notes, "Crowley wrote the play while working as an assistant to Natalie Wood, who became a close friend. The title was taken from a line in the Judy Garland iteration of A STAR IS BORN."

A Netflix version is in production starring Zachary Quinto and Jim Parsons from the recent Broadway revival.

scottmc said...

Out of curiosity I went to the MTC web site. The reviews they posted were indicative of how poorly the play was received. The set was praised as were the costumes and the lighting.By coincidence, THE GERMAN PLAY was staged about two blocks from this play. Sounds like those of us who saw your play laughed more in 15 minutes than those who spent 150 minutes watching The Perplexed.

KB said...

Just like in TV. How many of those "Friends" writers from the first couple of seasons, who went on to land giant development deals simply for being associated with a breakout hit, ever produce anything close to a hit? Track records skip, too.

Pat Reeder said...

To Lemuel:

Actually, by zeroing in like an obsessed fanatic on two words in a long detailed post and ignoring the rest, you gave your game away with yours.

Matt said...

When I first read that this was a “straight play” I thought in was referencing their sexual orientation. 😱Than I realized he was talking about a non musical. 🤪

Mark said...

Margaret Colin is a wonderful performer. She should be a big TV star, but has never quite been in the right place and at the right time to be a household name. Still, she’s had a career most actors would envy.

Tony.T said...

Was the play good on paper?

Y. Knott said...

Ha! Pat Reeder for the win!

Rick Whelan said...

Why do I keep going to the theatre?
Why do I keep going back for more?
The question soon arises
Just as the curtain rises
But by then they've dimmed the lights and closed the doors!

Mike Bloodworth said...

Since the play is called, "The Perplexed" maybe Greenberg intended it to be PERPLEXING.(?)

But seriously, it doesn't help my confidence when someone with that much experience cranks out a turkey. Not that everything one writes is going to be gold, but you do have higher expectations from someone like that.

I understand your reluctance to criticise people you know. You would think that people at that level would have had more than their fair share of negative reviews in their day. Yet, some are very thin skinned. They don't want to accept it no matter how true and/or accurate the criticism is. Although, it may all come down to credentials. If I said the play is bad he could ignore it. If someone of Ken's stature says it, that's hard to dismiss.

Pastor said...

As a curious bystander, with no dog in the fight, I ask if "Woke politics" gave his game away, did not your reaction give yours away? Again, just curious.

Dixon Steele said...

Lynne Meadow obviously liked the play more than you did. MTC has produced a bunch of his plays and there's something to be said for loyalty. I can hear you saying, "But what about audience loyalty?".

Greenberg's erratic, having written the excellent TAKE ME OUT (about to be revived on Broadway) and I rather liked THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES, also produced by MTC. His adaptation of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S was a fizzle.

No need to question how long the run will be. It was always scheduled to end March 29.

New plays just about always have readings. Did this one I wonder?

Dixon Steele said...

Variety liked it a lot:


Andrea Charles said...

Kudos to you dear Ken, for giving us readers an in-depth review of the play “The Perplexed”. I am astounded at your feedback with regards to the play as I have always seen Margaret Colin’s performance to be one-of-its-kind. She is not only intelligent in her acting skills but also knows very well to turn a negative role into a positive one.