Broadway Revivals: Why I Hate Hamlet — and Cyrano Too

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Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I am, luckily, a theater reviewer who doesn’t have to review everything I see. I try to write about the shows that stand out in some way — both good and bad. Some shows are just too routine to bother with. Others don’t have broad enough interest for the mainstream, mostly non-New York audience that I’m writing for. And some shows just seem superfluous.

I’m talking about revivals. New productions of old favorites, of course, are a necessary and unavoidable component of the New York theater scene. They help keep Broadway houses open, and attract the kind of casual theatergoers who, understandably, want a little brand-name reassurance before they plunk down $135 for a ticket. Yet there are, quite simply, too many revivals, too often, of too many of the same old plays.

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The phenomenon is more glaring than ever this season. Cyrano de Bergerac, the Edmond Rostand warhorse, is back on Broadway, in a new production starring British actor Douglas Hodge, just five years after Kevin Kline headlined the play’s last appearance. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams’ oft-recycled slice of Southern gothic, is returning for the third time in 10 years — with Scarlett Johansson sharpening her claws as Maggie the Cat this time around. The desperate real-estate salesmen of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross will be put through the wringer once again, just seven years after the last, perfectly good Broadway revival — apparently just so Al Pacino, who played the office shark Ricky Roma in the movie version, can try out a different role.

I don’t mean to put down every revival. The new Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (which opened last weekend, 50 years to the day after its original Broadway premiere) comes just seven years after the last one, starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin. Yet this Steppenwolf Theater staging, starring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton (the playwright and star, respectively of August: Osage County), gives Edward Albee’s masterpiece a strong, naturalistic, emotionally hot-wired rejuvenation that erases the sour taste I had in my mouth from the lackluster Turner-Irwin version in 2005. On the other hand, Hodge’s hyperkinetic performance in the new Cyrano did little to alleviate the heaviness that overtakes my eyes every time I have to slog through the long first act of this overrated classic.

Great plays ought to be revived, of course — both to remind people of why they’re great, and to give younger theatergoers a chance to encounter them, often for the first time in a first-rate production. The trouble is that Broadway producers, growing more conservative as costs soar, are gravitating more and more to a smaller and smaller corps of surefire oldies. These are the plays that give big stars (many from Hollywood or television) a chance to prove their stage chops in a recognized classic — and critics an opportunity to show off their theater erudition. Was Cate Blanchett’s Blanche DuBois better than Jessica Lange’s? Which Hoffman, Dustin or Philip Seymour, best captured the essence of Willy Loman? Frankly, I’m not that interested. I’m tired of Blanche DuBois. And after last season’s Mike Nichols-directed revival of Death of a Salesman (a good one, but the fourth I’ve seen on Broadway), I’m ready to send Willy back to the New England territory permanently.

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Enough, too, of the Hollywood stars who parade each summer to Central Park to practice their iambic pentameter in yet another version of Twelfth Night or Midsummer Night’s Dream. Enough (forgive the heresy) of Hamlet. The pinnacle of Shakespeare, perhaps, but the play has become so ubiquitous (with Jude Law, Michael Stuhlbarg, Liev Schreiber) that I’ve taken to distracting myself while watching it by toting up the number of famous lines that have entered the vernacular. To be or not to be bored — that is the question.

The problem with this closed loop of revivals is not just that it reinforces a sense of Broadway as a museum for the accepted Great Works of theater history. It puts too much emphasis on star performances; it turns plays into actor’s vehicles. Critics love to hail the “revelation” of an actor’s new interpretation of Uncle Vanya or Hedda Gabler — because, honestly, there’s not that much new to say about the play. But the differences are mostly a matter of nuance. The standard deviation for a reasonably professional Broadway production of a classic play, I would contend, is no greater than 10%. That is, a great Maggie the Cat might make Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 10% better. A mediocre one, 10% worse.

Either way, you’ve still got the same old play. And I’ve seen it.