If Doug Hughes' Broadway mounting of David Mamet’s Oleanna succeeded in dividing audiences, it wasn't necessarily always along the gender lines the production had sought to foment. If anything, the revival seemed to split its audiences on whether the 75-minute play was good to begin with.
Perhaps stung by mixed reviews (including a pan from The New York Times Ben Brantley that left me wondering if we had seen the same show) and an illusion of declining fortunes at the box office (the show took in $241,999 last week, its second week in a row with an increase), it was announced yesterday that Oleanna would close January 3, immediately prior to the long cold winter months that typically take their toll on Broadway. UPDATE (12.1.09): Today it was announced that Oleanna would accelerate its closing to Sunday, December 6.
If you read Steve On Broadway regularly, you know that I came down on the side of the production and gave both Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles high marks for their efforts. The play has managed to stick with me, more than one month after taking it in.
Of course, part of the appeal, but by no means my reason for providing the show with a generous 3 1/2 stars, was the talk back session employed immediately after my preview. It's often been said that audiences vote with their feet. In the case of my fellow theatregoers the day I saw Oleanna, they were clearly engaged as virtually everyone stayed for the talk back session.
Some detractors could say that they merely stayed to get their full money's worth since the thinking is that a one hour and 15 minutes performance doesn't justify paying upwards of $100 for a ticket. But I believe this is one of those plays that leaves an audience grappling for answers, hoping to validate their opinions with others and verifying if others saw the same thing.
When given the opportunity, I stay for talk back sessions after shows offering them as personal elucidation -- my way of filling in the blanks left behind. Oleanna was the perfect kind of play to provide these sessions to round-out the communal aspect that is the theatrical experience. I was not only pleased to participate, but I was proud that fellow blogger and friend Leonard Jacobs of The Clyde Fitch Report was tapped as moderator for one of them.
Unfortunately for this production of Oleanna, its playwright apparently was none too pleased with the novelty of the talk back session and they ceased immediately after the show opened. According to one of the talk back moderators, New York Post columnist Michael Riedel:
Alas, Mamet hated them. He never attended one, but he's against them on principle, believing that his play should stand on its own and not be picked apart by "experts" on the law, feminism and campus sexual harassment policies.
"The talk-backs added a lot to the show," an investor says, "but we were told by David's agent right after we opened that he didn't like them."
Mamet couldn't stop them. Writers control only the script, not what happens onstage after the final bow. But he had a trump card to play. When the show opened to mixed reviews, the producers had to cut expenses and asked Mamet to waive his royalties.
His price? No more talk-backs.
I don't know that I would go so far as one wag Riedel quoted who essentially said Mamet was giving his audience the finger, but I do wonder if Mamet hasn't grasped how the mindset of today's theatregoers has evolved along with their expecting more from each experience.
It's my firm belief that in order to broaden the appeal of this great experiment called live theatre, particularly during a time when its pricing seems so out of whack with reality, you need to give audiences a bone to go with their meat. Producers have to engage their audiences in new ways, incorporate talk back sessions where they make sense, use social networking to connect and yes, reach out to theatre bloggers who can help create a viral buzz that in this age of splintered media becomes ever more important.
If there is a plus, it's that the producers of Mamet's newest work Race seem to get the importance of active outreach, including with the blogging community. Let's just hope Mamet doesn't stop them.
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).