Like their cousins from the film world, theater critics depend upon invites from producers to see and cover their art form. Film critics typically attend private press screenings a few days before a movie premieres so they can publish their review on or around opening weekend; theater critics see shows on or around opening night, after several weeks of “previews” that are open to the public. That’s because most Broadway productions typically use those previews to iron out any kinks and tweak the show’s content. A show isn’t considered locked until it opens — so theater critics wait until that time to give their full and final assessment.
In Monday’s New York Times, theater critic Charles Isherwood argued that a current Broadway production — one that might hold significant interest for film fans — is deliberately exploiting this rule for monetary gain. That production is a revival of “Glengarry Glen Ross” starring Al Pacino, who also appeared in the much beloved 1992 film adaptation of David Mamet’s play. This version of “Glengarry” was originally scheduled to open November 11th, after three weeks of previews. After Hurricane Sandy, the opening was postponed until this weekend. Producers stated the reason for the delay was “the necessity for more rehearsal time,” but Isherwood isn’t buying it. Here’s why:
“It seems to me that the case of ‘Glengarry’ is an even more egregious attempt to avoid critical scrutiny for mercenary reasons. The explanations given for the delay — the necessity for more rehearsal time — ring pretty hollow, considering that the show had already been in rehearsal for weeks before it began previews, and had been open to the public for three weeks already… The decision to postpone was, in my view, a cynical move inspired by the knowledge that good critical notices couldn’t possibly make the show a hotter ticket — it was a hot ticket already — and while bad ones might slightly have dampened sales, more crucially, they might also put the actors in a bit of a funk.”
“Glengarry” was doing so well at the box office without reviews, Isherwood says, that the only possible impact of showing the play to critics would be negative; good notices can’t sell any more tickets to a sell out, but bad ones might hurt the play’s mojo — affecting the cast, if not the box office.
This scenario should sound awfully familiar to film critics, who face similar difficulties reviewing genre films that are often withheld for the exact same reason; their target audience wouldn’t be positively swayed by a rave, but curious folks outside the target audience might be persuaded to stay away by a pan. There were no press screenings of the recent “Resident Evil: Retribution,” for example, so many critics had to pay to see it with a crowd of regular moviegoers.
The difference there, of course, is that no matter how much critics hate “Resident Evil: Retribution” (and in that case the film had quite a few prominent defenders) it’s locked and finished. Critical dismissal could impact ticket sales, but not the morale of performers. But since when can Al Pacino not handle a bad review? This was the guy in “Heat” who screamed “GIMME ALL YA GOT!” I always just assumed that was his actual attitude in real life.