Saturday, December 27, 2008

Commentary: Looking back on 2008 theater, with a wink and a wince

By Hap Erstein
Some traditions die hard, like The Hapsters, those annual dubious achievement awards that celebrate the past year in theater.

It turns out they did not die with my exit from The Palm Beach Post, but were lurking nearby in limbo, waiting to go electronic. So here, for the 15th straight year, are the slightly bent Hapster Awards, looking back on 2008:

The Carbonells: Now you don't see them, now you do: South Florida’s theater community was shocked and puzzled when the board of directors of those other awards, the venerable Carbonells, abruptly announced that the 33-year-old program would suspend operations beginning in 2009. Many reasons were given, the least convincing being the high cost of gasoline, just as pump prices were tumbling.

Lots of groups, including the Theatre League of South Florida and an ad-hoc committee of area theater critics, tried to come up with solutions to the problem, hampered by not being privy to what the problem was. Less than three weeks later, the board changed its decision with a wave of its hand and a statemen that could be summed up best as: “Oh, never mind.”

"Tonight, the part normally played by ...": Most South Florida theaters cannot afford understudies, substituting crossed fingers for any real plan in case an actor becomes suddenly indisposed. That works more often than not, except for one specific week this November.

During the final matinee preview of Noises Off at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, actor Christopher Kelley took an unscheduled pratfall, crashing into an onstage table, leaving him in need of emergency room stitches and leaving the theater to cancel that evening’s opening.

Two nights later, at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton, lead actor Benjamin Schrader struggled to shake off a flu during preview week of She Loves Me. When he wasn’t well by opening night, an actor from Orlando who had done the role recently was called in and the show went on -- sort of -- in a scripts-and-chairs concert version of the show.

Yes, but is he Celsius or Fahrenheit?: Jeremy Piven, star of television’s Entourage, got great reviews on Broadway in David Mamet’s show biz satire, Speed-the-Plow. Then, two months before the play’s run was scheduled to end, he startled his fellow cast members and certainly the production’s investors by walking out and flying back to Los Angeles, insisting he was suffering from a “high level of mercury.”

Although Mamet was angered by the abrupt exit, it did not stop him from getting off one of the best lines of the year. Commenting on Piven’s mysterious ailment, Mamet told Daily Variety, “My understanding is that he is leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer.”

Royal Poinciana landmarked but still shuttered: The closed, mildewing Royal Poinciana Playhouse, which has won more Hapster Awards than even Jan McArt -- sorry, Jan, no Hapster for you this year, but we thought you’d appreciate the mention -- received landmark status from the Palm Beach Town Council. The Palm Beach Theatre Guild, which has been working to get the building opened for the past four-and-a-half years (or at least take a look inside) considers the council’s move a victory for its cause.

In fact, what it does is quash the plan by the Playhouse’s new owner to bring theater back to the island by replacing the existing performance space with a 350-seat multi-use theater.

Hapster trades in aisle seat for stage role: When my overly exuberant cousin-in-law heard that Mosaic Theatre was auctioning off a walk-on role in a future production, she bid on it for my sake at a fundraiser for the Plantation company and -- since no one else wanted the questionable item -- she “won” it.

When artistic director Richard Jay Simon learned I would be using the gift, he not only came up with an especially appropriate part (a grieving-but-silent mourner in Neil LaBute’s Wrecks), but also offered free tickets to area actors if they would attend and review my performance, calling it “a unique opportunity to get even.”

Several actors took him up on it and either they actually liked my acting or they had not yet heard that I would soon be leaving my job at the Palm Beach Post and they didn’t have to suck up to me anymore.

Where there's smoke, there may not be fire: In John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God, the playwright specifically made his skeptical psychiatrist character a chain-smoker. But director William Hayes, knowing his cranky, cough-prone audience would rebel if forced to sit in a room with billowing smoke, had actress Lisa Morgan puff on unlit cigarettes for most of the evening. Even worse, he wrote a program insert calling attention to the politically correct, but dramatically distracting directorial choice.

The 28-year-old, rarely revived play remained under its own cloud of smoke.

Kravis Center invents its own Broadway: After wondering why it was paying a middleman to produce a Broadway-style subscription series for its Dreyfoos Hall, the Kravis Center inaugurated its own slate of road shows this fall. What they came up with, while Broadway is getting hip with shows such as Spring Awakening, In the Heights and Passing Strange, was hardly earth-shattering.

It kicked off with Avenue Q, which had already played South Florida the previous season, and would have fit better in the Royal Poinciana Playhouse (See above). Still to come is the perpetually revived Fiddler on the Roof (starring a 73-year-old Topol), a non-union stage version of The Wizard of Oz (that will never be seen on Broadway) and the teen and tween fave, Legally Blonde.

As to that one, based on the Reese Witherspoon movie, give the tickets to your grandchildren.

From the We Have Our Doubts Department: Two comebacks we did not see coming and still cannot get our minds around:

* The Coconut Grove Playhouse -- Closed for two-and-a-half years with an unexpected $4 million of debts, the revered and maligned 50-plus-year-old Miami theater has a plan to rise from its own ashes. It would replace its still-existing 1,100-seat playhouse with a 300-seat space, surrounded by retail and condos, perhaps as early as 2012. Wanna bet the condos happen long before the theater does?

* Gary Waldman and Jamison Troutman -- These two producing partners used to run the Atlantis Playhouse, which closed abruptly three years ago, leaving in its wake many distraught subscribers. In 2006, they left the area for what they hoped would be more fertile ground in Biloxi, Miss. Well, they are back, landing in Wilton Manors at the former 26th Street Theatre, currently in previews with a re-run of their Paul Simon revue and perhaps a reprise of their Carbonell-winning The Life to follow.

May I suggest you only buy single tickets?

In Memoriam: 2008 saw the loss of many important figures in the theater world, both locally and nationally. The Hapster tips his hat in tribute to:

Jack Zink: Sun-Sentinel theater and arts critic, first editor of Palm Beach Post’s TGIF section, founder and guiding force of the Carbonell Awards.

Bruce Adler: Tony Award-nominated Broadway star (Crazy for You) and local stage veteran.

Harold Pinter: British playwright (The Homecoming, The Birthday Party, Betrayal) and Nobel Prize winner, who elevated the pause to an art.

Paul Newman: Stage-screen actor (original casts of Picnic, Sweet Bird of Youth)

Paul Scofield: British actor (Tony and Oscar winner, A Man for All Seasons)

Dale Wasserman: Playwright (Man of La Mancha, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)

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