Broadway and Beyond: Three Shows That Probably Won't Save the Great White Way

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Broadway keeps bumping along from crisis to crisis. First came Sept. 11 and the drastic drop in tourist traffic that followed. Then, last month, a musicians' strike shut down all of Broadway's musicals for a weekend, just when a postwinter surge in business was expected. Now there's that inconvient war in Iraq, which is distracting theatergoers and depressing the tourist business once again. You know times are tough on Broadway when "Urban Cowboy", the spring's big new musical (at the Broadhurst Theater), got scared out of its boots by a slew of tepid reviews and announced it would close just days after opening. The producers later changed their mind, and the show is now trying to make a go of it — but imagine what all this must do for morale in the chorus line.

Actually, morale among the cowboys and cowgirls who whoop it up onstage seemed pretty high the night I saw "Urban Cowboy". The musical, based on the 1980 John Travolta-Debra Winger film about a young Texas hardhat who proves his manhood by riding the mechanical bull at Gilley's bar, features some perky dancing, a pleasant mix of old and new country songs and a female lead, Jenn Colella, with a fetching country voice that breaks in all the right places. The problems are a star, Matt Cavanaugh, who replaces Travolta's misunderstood-teen insouciance with white-bread Broadway blandness, and a book that scrubs out most of the grit and subtlety of the movie. In another Broadway season, "Urban Cowboy" might have had just enough firepower to survive. But with too many other, better musicals ("Hairspray", "Movin' Out", "The Producers") vying for theatergoer dollars, an inoffensive show like "Urban Cowboy" is probably headed for the last roundup.

The flipside of Broadway's surfeit of musicals, of course, is the alarming scarcity of straight plays. Aside from the occasional big-star revival (Paul Newman in "Our Town" earlier this season), Broadway seems to have completely lost its touch for the kind of middlebrow entertainments that popular playwrights like Neil Simon used to turn out with ease. But two recent shows have just arrived with hopes of changing that.

"The Play What I Wrote", a big hit in London now making its Broadway debut (at the Lyceum), stars the British comedy team of Sean Foley and Hamish McColl, who also co-wrote this comedy, which pays tribute to another comedy team, Morecambe and Wise, who were a hit on British TV in the 1970s. All these names mean a lot more to audiences in London than they do in America, which is why some figured "The Play What I Wrote" would not be able to survive the trip across the pond. As far as I'm concerned, it hasn't.

The show's flimsy premise is that one member of the comedy duo, tired of being the overlooked straight man, wants to quit the act and put on a play he has written called "A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple." This provides an excuse for a lot of dopey vaudeville patter, bad puns ("I Camembert it"), goofy songs, silly walks and men wearing dresses. Typical gag: the show's producer, Mike Nichols, is lampooned onstage as "Mike Tickles"; each time his name is mentioned, the fellow is tickled. This is the kind of aggressively lowbrow humor that American critics generally excuse only because it's British. I found it just tiresome, though partly redeemed by the good cheer and polish of Foley and McColl (along with Toby Jones, a hardworking third wheel) and by the show's gimmick: each night a different "mystery guest” shows up to help act out the play within a play. Roger Moore, Nathan Lane and Kevin Kline have been among the stars lured onstage, invariably to an ecstatic reception. Alas, they too have to dress up like women.

"Life X 3" (at the Circle in the Square) has quite a bit more to offer. This new comedy-drama comes from Yasmina Reza, the French playwright responsible for "Art", the surprise hit about three friends who have a falling out over a painting. "Life X 3" is a chewier play than "Art", and I was rooting hard for it. But in the end, it's a disappointment.

A married couple is spending an unremarkable evening in their Paris home; Sonia (Helen Hunt) is trying to get some work done, while Henry (John Turturro) is using all his wiles to get their 6-year-old to go to sleep. The complication: another couple — Henry's boss and his wife — unexpectedly show up for dinner, one night before they are supposed to. The twist: the ensuing evening is replayed three different times, representing three alternate versions of how this uncomfortable situation might play out.

The play starts wonderfully, with a sure sense of how the trivial tensions of married life can escalate into crisis. Henry, an astrophysicist preparing to publish an important paper, is casually told by his boss that another group of researchers has just published a paper on the very same subject, throwing Henry into despair. As the scene is replayed, his reaction to this news shifts and varies, as do other details of the evening, from what snacks the parents decide to feed their restless 6-year-old, to the progress of an illicit romance between Sonia and Henry's boss.

Yet, this promising device winds up in a puddle of missed opportunities. The contrasts and parallels in the three alternate scenes seem arbitrary, unfocused and occasionally confusing. (It's hard to tell, at least as Matthew Warchus directs it, just what, if anything, has gone on between Sonia and Henry's boss before this evening.) Worse, the intial misunderstanding — guests who arrive for dinner on the wrong night — winds up having little to do with the rest of the play. In each the three variations, Reza skips the key scene in which the couples discover the mistake; she jumps straight to later in the evening, when they're scarfing down cheese snacks. (What, no takeout restaurants in Paris?) You only have to imagine what a playwright like Alan Ayckbourn — or even Neil Simon, in his better days — could have done with the same device, to get impatient with "Life X 3" long before the guests file out for the last time.