PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Sept. 29-Oct. 5: Rebecca's Woes, Grace Opens, New Homes for Atlantic and Public
By Robert Simonson
The most riveting drama on Broadway this week took place off stage. And even in the long annals of New York theatre chicanery, this yarn is one for the books.
The tale of fraud, death and mystery investors swirled like a galaxy around the dark sun of a musical known as Rebecca. A hard-luck project from the very day it was announced as a Broadway prospect a few years ago, Rebecca's future was never stable. It was on, it was off; the money was there, the money wasn't; it was due for this season, it was coming next season. Finally, on Sept 30, producer Ben Sprecher announced the show will not open this fall as scheduled; the capitalization had failed to materialize. But that was just the start of the backstage drama, one that kept theatre reporters and Shubert Alley gossips busy all week.
The producers, seeming to take a page from the sudsy novel they were attempting to dramatize, blamed their fate on an untimely death and a mysterious, cruel character lurking in the shadows.
In early August, the press was told, one Paul Abrams — a South African businessman and a major investor who, with three other colleagues, was supposed to cough up $4.5 million of the show's $12 budget — suddenly died. In London. From malaria. Malaria in London. Then the producers complained that a malicious e-mail sent by an anonymous party has scared off a replacement investor.
Soon enough, the bloodhounds of Broadway began looking into this Abrams. But they could find no trace of him, no death notice, nothing. Sprecher admitted he had never met the man, but had been connected to him by a middle party — whom he declined to name. The press found the middleman nonetheless. He was Mark C. Hotton. A Long Island businessman, he has been previously sued for fraud in federal court in New York and Florida, and been accused of running a Ponzi scheme. The Times reported that Hotton filed for personal bankruptcy in 2011. His debt was said to be $15 million.
Now the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI are interested, and have begun reportedly looking into the circumstances of the loss of financing of Rebecca. Sprecher denies he had fabricated any aspect of the show's investors or investment history. As for Hotton, he has not been reached for comment.
This would all make for a very good episode of "Smash."
Playwright Craig Wright's first Broadway production, Grace — a four-person darkly comic drama set in Florida that examines the meaning of religion and life — officially opened Oct. 4 at Broadway's Cort Theatre following previews that began Sept. 13.
Directed by Dexter Bullard, the cast included stage and screen star Paul Rudd, as well as Michael Shannon, Kate Arrington and Edward Asner. Rudd and Arrington are a wide-eyed young couple who head South with big plans to open a chain of Gospel-themed motels.
Anyone familiar with the political leanings of most theatre folk can't have been surprised with Wright's take on religion and the religious. And most critics weren't surprised either. "Grace isn't as intellectually probing or unsettling as it means to be," opined the Times. "It tidily stacks the deck of its central thesis, which concerns the nature of grace as it is visited on inhabitants of this earth. In Mr. Wright's version the evangelical Christian doesn't stand a chance…The paradox of the financially beleaguered Steve [played by Rudd] losing his religion while everybody else finds theirs is laid out as tidily as a PowerPoint presentation."
Still, that didn't mean it wasn't fun to watch the actors play out the predictable story. "The unraveling of Steve is at the heart of this play, and it is a sad and wondrous thing to watch Rudd, the childlike man of Judd Apatow films, go from a smug, big-smiling, self-assured guy to a shattered man whose faith has evaporated and who now holds a revolver." Newsday carved out a position down the middle, saying, "This strangely entertaining, seriously unsettling play...keeps teetering on becoming a glib cartoon about religion. But the actors…make it impossible to look away long enough to doubt their characters." New York magazine summed it up with "Miraculously, then, Grace is highly watchable; where it slumps as a play, it soars as a competent consumer good."
The Manhattan theatre building boom of the last year — the sprawling Pershing Square Signature Center, the new Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center Theater — continued this week with a vengeance. Supporters and donors and artists attended the Oct. 1 unveiling of the Atlantic Theater Company's newly renovated mainstage home in the Chelsea neighborhood. Unlike other recent construction projects undertaken by other New York theatre companies, which replaced old digs with completely new architectural visions, the Atlantic sought, in its $8.3 renovation of its landmarked home, to preserve the space's basic look and feeling, while improving patron and backstage facilities. Including new bathrooms; in fact, most importantly, new bathrooms.
Three days later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and many others gathered in the East Village to christen the Public Theater's new digs, which have transformed Joe's Pub, the lobby, the dressing rooms, the newly opened mezzanine, the outer entryway and much more, at cost a total of $40 million. Plus new bathrooms, wonderful new bathrooms. (One gets the idea that when theatres embark on a new construction process, restroom facilities are the first item on the agenda.)
The commemoration of the Public Theater's renovation will continue over the next two months through a series of cultural events. Among them is a block party and open house on Oct 13, from noon to 5 PM, in which Lafayette Street between Astor Place and West 4th Street will be partially closed to traffic.
In other Public Theater news, alumna and film goddess Meryl Streep donated $1 million to the theater. "I give this gift in honor of the founder of The Public Theater, my friend and mentor Joseph Papp, and in remembrance of one of the theatre's Board members and greatest supporters, my friend Nora Ephron," Streep said in a statement. Ephron died earlier this year. Streep began her professional relationship with the Public more than 35 years ago.
Christmas has been saved. Following a nationwide search, producers of A Christmas Story, The Musical announced Oct. 2 that Johnny Rabe will play that dear little four-eyes, Ralphie, in the holiday engagement of the musical at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Rabe auditioned for the 2011 national tour of A Christmas Story, The Musical in Chicago last year. Too young for the role last year, producers kept an eye on Rabe by casting him as one of Ralphie's classmates. A year later, Rabe once again auditioned, and won the producers over. And over at the Hirschfeld, the producers of Elf have found their title North Pole sprite — it's Avenue Q veteran Jordan Gelber.
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