Last night I saw the final, reduced-price “preview” of the new London production of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys.” It opens tonight, and in my review, to be published tomorrow, I express the hope that the play will improve when the run starts for real. Almost exactly the same thing happened at the end of February, when critics were allowed in early to see a revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Absent Friends.”
Then, too, I noted a distinct absence of ensemble playing. A really talented cast, playing a pretty good piece by one of the best living playwrights, just wasn’t giving their all. As I wrote in my review, I knew in my bones that the production simply was not as lackluster as it seemed at this last preview: the performances hadn’t gelled, but it felt as though some of the actors were holding back. And, sure enough, the actual press night notices were better than those given by my preview colleagues and me.
In a way, the last preview of “Sunshine Boys” was even worse. First, it’s a better play than “Absent Friends.” Second, it had one comic genius in it – Danny DeVito – and one very fine actor, Richard Griffiths. But from where my Anglo-American companion and I sat, in Row L of the stalls, some of Griffiths’s lines were inaudible – and this includes punch lines. And we had the same feeling of ensemble failure. In what is, fundamentally, a two-hander, the tiny David of Danny DeVito didn’t really get to grips with Griffiths’ Goliath. You just didn’t feel they cared about each other.
There were other weaknesses. My companion and I are both bi-lingual in American and British English, and could hear poor Adam Levy (a Brit who plays DeVito’s theatrical agent nephew) pronounce “over” in a very non-American way. And we could detect the stereotypical Brooklynese dialect he’s been taught. As for Griffiths’s speech, I was impressed that his plentiful errors of accent were so few.
Lots of my colleagues are pleased by this new policy of press-night leniency. It makes for very welcome flexibility with respect to deadlines. For example, I was only able to review “Sunshine Boys” this week, because going on Wednesday night to the final preview meant I caught my Thursday deadline for Friday’s paper. Had I gone to see it only tonight, which is the actual press night, I’d have had to hold over the review until next Friday’s paper (as our arts coverage is confined to our Friday Weekend section).
At both “Absent Friends” and “The Sunshine Boys” I felt the performances would probably improve. Maybe all the actors needed was the adrenaline shot of knowing that the critics were present, and that everything they did on stage mattered. Maybe some of them were just holding back, “marking” their notes in the way singers usually do in rehearsals, saving their full efforts for the critics and full-price audiences. But no critic can make allowances of this sort; you have to call it as you see it. You can, after all, only review the performance at which you were present.
So apart from flexibility about deadlines, who benefits from this growing practice? No one on the creative or business side of the production – they risk less favourable reviews leading to diminished ticket sales. Maybe the PRs profit? They can claw back a fair number of seats to the opening/press night to give to friends, or to tacky tabloid slebs who’ll get their pictures taken for the cheapo papers.
If offered a seat at a preview that suits my deadline better than the press night does, I’ll probably take it. On the whole, I think it would be healthier for the theatre if the option wasn’t available.