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Reasons Why “reasons to be pretty” Couldn’t Survive

by Karen Tortora-Lee on June 15, 2009

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In Memorium

This was supposed to be a review for reasons to be pretty (written by Neil LaBute, directed by Terry Kinney, starring  Thomas Sadoski,  Marin Ireland, Steven Pasquale and Piper Perabo).  A very late review, no doubt, but not every reviewer has the luxury of seeing a Broadway show while it’s still in previews.  Sometimes a reviewer needs to wait until someone wins an extra pair of tickets and graciously passes them along to her … which is how I came by my tickets.  So, if you’re looking for a review I’m going to direct you to a terrific review of reasons to be pretty by David Stallings of The Fab Marquee. If you’re looking for my reasons why good shows can’t survive on The Great White Way these days, then please keep reading …

It all started last week when I got this call:

Man: Is this Karen Tortora-Lee? Me: Yes.
Man: Did you win tickets to reasons to be pretty?
Me: (nervously) … Um … yes … <Oh my God!  They got me!  They know Glamorous Miss X  entered the contest twice and passed her second set of tickets on to me!  They’re taking them away!>
Man: Well, your tickets are for the 15th …
Me: Yes …
Man: …  and the show is actually closing on the 14th …
Me: OH NO!
Man: Yes … it’s true …
Me: How unexpected!
Man: So we’d like to offer you tickets on a day before the 14th … can you make it before then?
Me: Sure <checking calendar> … oh, this is so sad!  Why are you closing?
Man: Well, we were up for a Tony
Man: … and we didn’t win.  So, you know … we just don’t have the ticket sales now …
Me: Can I come Friday the 12th?
Man:  Sure … I’ll put you down for 2 …
Me: I’m so sorry … and I’m sorry that you’re going to have to make calls like this all day.  That’s awful. Man: <chuckle> Oh, well, that’s how it goes.  But thanks.

That’s how it goes.

Ahhh, boy.  This is very, very sad.  Very sad.  Just goes to show you that The Tonys are nothing like American Idol where Season Two runner up Clay Aiken can have a better career than Season Two “winner”, That Guy With The 205 On His Shirt.  (Yeah, I had to think a while before Ruben Studdard came to mind).  Heck, even a 3rd Runner Up like Season Five’s Chris Daughtry was able to have a career that made actual winner Taylor Hicks look like an accountant doing karaoke in a dive bar on his lunch hour for tips.  Broadway, however, is not American Idol and it seems like the “honor of just being nominated” is not enough to get butts in seats these days … not at $100 bucks a butt.  Seems like these days the only way to get people to your show is to give tickets away in a contest (Glamorous Miss X had already entered and won the contest once before.  To me this smacked of desperation on the part of the show. Perennial crowd-pleaser Wicked isn’t out there giving away tickets to anyone who enters their “contest”).  Oh, and for what it’s worth?  I saw God of Carnage — the winning play — a few months ago.  I liked it, but aside from the fact that I got to watch famous people for an hour it really didn’t move me all that much.  Notice I didn’t submit a review for it …

Of course, after Friday night’s performance of reasons to be pretty it was obvious to me why this show wasn’t succeeding.  Not because it was badly acted … quite the contrary.  And director Terry Kinney (Okay, okay, I admit it … I’m an OZ fan, even all these years later, and to me he will always be Tim McManus) hits the mark every time.   This was a high octane show with layers and layers of emotion, with no clear heroes but rather four realistic characters who uttered comments filled with such truth that they actually drew gasps from the audience.

So … why did it close?  Simple:  It’s not a tourist show.  It’s not a kid’s show.  It’s not a show based on a Mel Brooks movie or a Disney movie.  And it’s not a bunch of random songs from one particular group or time period strung together around a loose “plot”.  In other words … it was a real and intelligent piece of theatre, and it was meant for a real and intelligent audience.  Without a famous-name celebrity in the cast (sorry, Beverly Hills Chihuahua star Piper Perabo, Coyote Ugly was a looooooooooong time ago), a familiar plot, or a toe tapping song to jolt the audience into paying attention this play was coasting on fumes.

A taste of ... home?

A taste of ... home?

Having lived in NYC my whole life, and being a Broadway fan from the time I could crawl, I have endless stories about tourists coming to New York City with high expectations and the inability to tell a good restaurant from a bad one (it is for these very people that there is an Olive Garden smack in the middle of Times Square).  These tourists have made the long, expensive trip.  They’ve put on their fancy duds … some gals are even in their highest heels and shiniest clothes trying to “blend in” as  –what TV and their imagination tells them is–  a Typical New Yorker.  They’ve got their show ticket and they want to be IMPRESSED.  Here’s what they do NOT want to be:  Challenged (by world views that don’t match their own) or Confused (by plots that are too thoughtful).  They don’t want to leave the theatre after plunking down $100 bucks saying “well, I just didn’t get that at all“.  This is why CATS was the longest running show on Broadway and why the Disney Cartel is eating up the theatre district one playhouse at time.  Someone from Montesoda (the fictional place that includes every none-coastal American State) can go to see any one of these shows with a Japanese grandma one seat to the left and a home-schooled 6 year old one seat to the right, and sit in the darkened theatre knowing that they won’t be shocked by anything they’re about to see … or offended … or forced to learn.

A while back my husband and I had traveled to a bed and breakfast in Mystic and met a European couple making their way down the coast with NYC being their last stop.  They asked us which shows we’d recommend, after they named some shows they wanted to see, or had already seen (Mary Poppins, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid …).  We said that Hairspray (which was still open at the time) was a lot of fun.  The woman looked at me quizzically “It won’t make any sense to me” she said, in her completely fluent English.  ”Why not?” I asked.  ”Because I haven’t seen the movie” she replied, and promptly opened up her “I HEART NY” Travel Guide and left me to my Eggs Benedict.  So much information in so short a sentence.

I loved reasons to be pretty.  I loved the rapid-fire dialogue, the layers of emotions, the way it illustrated how an entire relationship can hinge on one mis-spoken phrase.  I loved how the show examined our own images of ourselves versus what those close to us see.  I viscerally felt the drain a friendship can have on you when it’s run its course but neither friend bothers to let go.  I had flashes of my life, of old relationships, where ex-boyfriends said the wrong thing at the wrong time and our wrong relationship fell like a house of cards.  I understood how some times a waste of time can feel like a good thing because the opposite is just too scary.  I also understood how bitter a pill that waste of time is to swallow when you actually do leave it and glance back at it from a different perspective.

Having said that … I agree.  This was not a show for a six year old.  This was not a show for a grandmother from Montesoda.  The language was too quick for a high-school English As A Second Language visitor from another country.  And the themes were far far too dark for a person who is only in New York for five days and has to get up early every morning in order to get the best seat on the Big Apple Bus.  If you can’t knock it out of the park for all those people every night, every time … you’re not going to have them go back to their home town and recommend your show to their friends who are making the big Broadway trip themselves next summer.  You’re not going to have the six year old go back to her class and bring her program (or mug, or t-shirt) to show-and-tell and make all the other kids so jealous that by the time the three o’clock bell rings they’ve all got their Can we go too?  Please?  Please?  Please?  Please …. mantra all ready to spill out of their baby-toothed mouths.  You’re not going to have that busload of Japanese tourists waxing rhapsodical about that beautiful play about … four hard to understand people who scream a lot.

It’s true, a Tony win might have secured reasons to be pretty a few more months.  But eventually they were going to run out of New Yorkers, and visiting people from LA, and Neil LaBute fans.  And then reasons to be pretty, as good as it was, as close to perfect as a show can get, would have closed their doors just the same.

These days, that’s just how it goes.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

LaraNo Gravatar June 17, 2009 at 1:24 pm

Oh no! I’d intended to go and see this one after watching the Tonys. How horrid that their sales have been so poor following the show. I would have thought that would have generated at least potentially some interest. Bummer.

karenNo Gravatar June 17, 2009 at 5:39 pm

I think the nomination did generate some interest, but just not enough. Some might say that shows like this which move from off-b’way to Broadway might be hurting rather than helping ticket sales. Goodness knows you can run off-b’way forever (or what seems like forever … The Fantasticks opened in 1960 and closed on January 13 2002 after 17,162 performances) but by staying off-Broadway you remain ineligible for the coveted Tony Award. In grabbing for the brass ring, many shows fall off the merry-go-round completely.

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