Readers have been asking about the lack of reviews by Boston theater critics, including me, of “Plaza Suite,’’ the Neil Simon comedy starring Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker that recently wrapped up a pre-Broadway run at the Emerson Colonial Theatre.
It’s an understandable question, and one that deserves an answer. We fully intended to review “Plaza Suite.’’ There are loftier aspects to the job of a critic, but at its most basic level a reviewer’s function is to guide readers toward the good stuff and steer them away from the bad stuff.
Some background: With most theater productions, reviewers are invited to weigh in after a designated preview period. During that period, a show is open to the public, but it is often still being fine-tuned and generally finding its feet before producers invite critics to evaluate it. Then, on press night, reviewers see the show and have their say.
Most Boston plays and musicals, whether locally generated or touring productions, have only a handful of previews. On Broadway, however, preview periods can be much longer. “Hamilton’’ had 26 previews; “Jagged Little Pill’’ 36; “Hadestown’’ 27. When “Plaza Suite’’ begins performances on Broadway next week, it will have a full month of previews before reviewers are able to deliver their verdict.
In Boston, “Plaza Suite’’ was booked for only two weeks and two days, and it sold out for that entire run. Press night was scheduled by the show’s producers for the night before the end of that run, after a total of 19 performances here. As events unfolded and offstage drama eclipsed the onstage kind at “Plaza Suite,’’ both the brevity of the run and the lateness of press night complicated the scenario for local reviewers.
“Plaza Suite’’ is the latest attempt by Ambassador Theatre Group, which operates the Colonial and is one of the show’s producers, to return the storied venue to its former status as a home for pre-Broadway tryouts. Directed by John Benjamin Hickey, the revival of Simon’s 1968 play was designed as a vehicle for Broderick and Parker (husband and wife in real life) and built to showcase their particular talents. “Plaza Suite’’ consists of a trio of playlets, all set in the same New York hotel room, in which each of the two stars plays three different roles. There are a few other actors in very minor roles, but the pair of lead performers carry by far most of the production’s weight.
That created a crisis for the show when Broderick took ill on Thursday, Feb. 20, so much so that the performance was canceled shortly before the curtain, to the frustration of audience members who had been looking forward to seeing it for months. Then came Friday, Feb. 21, the press night performance, and it was the critics who had a dilemma on their hands.
At mid-afternoon on Friday, ATG spokesman Robert Jones contacted reviewers to say Parker was ill and would not be able to perform that night. An understudy, Erin Dilly, who had not performed in the show before, would go on for Parker and play the star’s three roles opposite Broderick. Through Jones, the show’s producers asked that that performance not be reviewed.
A journalist’s natural instinct is to reject any attempt to restrict coverage. But after talking it over, my editor and I concluded that, under the circumstances, the producers were making a legitimate request. The production had been constructed almost entirely around Broderick and Parker, and was now devoid of half that equation, replaced by an actress performing the role for the first time.
I made it clear to Jones, however, that I wanted to attend one of the Saturday, Feb. 22, performances if Parker returned to the cast, and write a review. She did return, but the performances were sold out, and the producers said they were unable to accommodate critics.
Other Boston critics had also opted not to review the Feb. 21 performance, including Joyce Kulhawik, the former longtime arts critic for WBZ-TV and the current president of the Boston Theater Critics Association (of which I’m a member). “In no universe would it have been fair’’ to “judge this material apart from the cast that was originally intended,’’ Kulhawik said. The reconstituted version of “Plaza Suite,’’ with an understudy going on in Parker’s place, was “simply not the show that was being prepared for critical and general audience consumption,’’ she said.
When I initially learned press night of “Plaza Suite’’ had been scheduled so late in the run, I protested to Jones, the ATG spokesman. That scheduling meant that my review couldn’t run online until the day of the final performances, and in print until after the production had left town. Yes, Boston reviews would trail “Plaza Suite’’ to New York, as happened long ago when this city was a major tryout town. (Back then, as near as I can tell, reviewers were invited in about a week after shows first opened in Boston.) But our reviews would be of no use to local readers trying to decide whether to buy a ticket here.
The producers were unyielding. Jones said they were designating the first two weeks of performances as previews.
So why not just buy a ticket, see the show ahead of press night, and write a review? I considered that.
When a show’s preview period is so protracted that its goal is clearly to rake in the cash while keeping critics’ verdicts from dampening the box office, as happened on Broadway some years ago with “Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark,’’ abiding by the protocol of a scheduled press night makes little sense.
The “Plaza Suite’' case, though, was not clear-cut. It was beyond irritating that we local critics would not weigh in till near the end of the run, but my editor and I ultimately decided that a two-week preview period — shorter than most Broadway shows get — was not out of bounds. The bigger issue was that the overall run in Boston was so short.
Kulhawik said she understands that productions need a preview period of “nurturing’’ before they’re ready for review, but emphasized: “Our reviews have to land before those shows leave town.’’ Consequently, in her capacity as president of the BTCA, Kulhawik has asked that critics be invited in at least one week before a show moves to New York.
In response, Erica Lynn Schwartz, general manager of the Colonial, offered a statement: “We appreciate Joyce engaging us in this dialogue and simultaneously remain committed to supporting the Pre-Broadway process and development of new work here in Boston. We look forward to continuing this conversation with the Boston Theatre Critics Association and the Producers of the productions that we bring to the Colonial.’’
That statement can fairly be described as noncommittal. “We are not going to let the issue drop,'' said Kulhawik. "This was a real lesson for all of us.’’
Agreed. Yes, fluky circumstances derailed a planned review, but scheduling a press night so late in the run heightened the possibility that things could go sideways. We’ll remember that, and the next time a press night at any Boston theater poses a potential conflict with our obligation to Globe readers, we’ll consider taking a different approach.