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Byron Woods 

Post mortem

Call it the occupational hazard of the weekly press: a story already obsolete on the day it hits the street. By close of business Tuesday, Nov. 18, the producers of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (see "NC/NYC," in last week's Independent) had already pulled the plug on Ellen Burstyn's one-woman show based on the best-selling Allan Gurganus novel. When that evening's performance at the Longacre Theater on 48th St. was abruptly cancelled, Widow's unconventional Monday opening night on Broadway became its closing night as well.

Though a robust and appreciative audience greeted the Nov. 12 performance I attended (Widow had been in previews since Halloween night), ticket sales plummeted in the wake of a mixed New York Times review and almost uniformly negative notices from the rest of the critical press.

Numbers provided last week by Variety indicated that, after the critics had weighed in, only 40 or so patrons were still willing to ante up for tickets the following day. Facing a $2,000 gross--not nearly enough to keep a Broadway house open, even for a single night--the producers cut their losses: a $1.2 million investment in the show.

But (as more than one grinning theater person has asked me, in confidential tones, over the past week) was it really that bad?

In a word: no. But it clearly wasn't perfect.

And this season that apparent requirement has closed a lot more than a debatable one-woman show. It's arguably led to a full-scale dramatic drought on Broadway.

Now, musicals we've got--by the truckload. But at the start of the fall, only one play, Take Me Out, was showing on a Broadway stage. True, a very few brave souls have ventured forth since then. But can increasingly summary judgments and ever-higher financial stakes be completely unconnected to the fact that new works by Arthur Miller, David Mamet and August Wilson are all being seen this fall--but none of them in New York City? With heavy hitters like these avoiding the pool, what chance did first-time playwright Martin Tahse really have?

Since the New York Times is routinely regarded as the region's kingmaker, it's almost ironic that Bruce Weber's review was actually one of the kindest notices the show received, a mixed finding which praised Burstyn but still had a certain "I know what you're up to" air about it. Had the other reviews followed suit, the show may well have seen the season through.

But the long knives were out in the New York Post, Newsday, the Associated Press, Theatermania and others. Michael Feingold's snide Village Voice review actually knocked the novel he'd never read, and provided a thankless obituary to a show already closed.

All allegations of critical bloodlust aside, Widow had problems. The dramatic stakes were admittedly reduced when Lucy Marsden's character lost a good three decades, due to Burstyn's far too physically robust performance. Instead of a 99-year-old wisp of a woman clinging tenaciously to life, Burstyn's Lucy looked to be a reasonably fit woman in her 60s, easily regaling an audience with her tales.

Which brings up the other problem in this adaptation. In Gurganus' novel, at what must be the end of her days, Lucy relates her life's stories and what she's learned from them to one woman she has chosen as being worthy to hear them. These conversations, from bedside or chairside at a nursing home, have an edge to them: the precious story, passed on at the very last, to the one who might carry it forward.

That particular edge is all but lost in this production. Dramatic stakes are critically reduced once again when a hale and hearty Lucy tenders those tales in the guise of an apparently professional storyteller, entertaining an audience at a benefit show to put a new roof on the nursing home.

The stories may be the same in both cases. But the teller and the circumstance are fundamentally altered.

The playwright's dilemma was an understandable one. An extremely old woman, finally telling all from a bed or chair at the end of her life, may make riveting literature, but theatrically it's still problematic in the extreme. That's particularly the case if you're determined to keep the work a one-woman show, without the luxury of flashbacks or other characters to dramatize the memories recounted.

The drive to tell--or hear--her tales drops precipitously when their conveyance is much less urgent--not a secret any longer, but a show.

While at Manbites Dog last weekend, I learned that tickets are quickly selling out for the mid-December visit by Tiny Ninja Theater, a comedic New York group devoted to performing the classics--with inch-high plastic action figures. Their motto? What else: "No small parts, just small actors." Given the smallness of their stage, only 24 people will be admitted to each showing, Dec. 10-14. Word of mouth alone has already sold half the run's capacity. Those planning to catch the group are picking up their phones right now and dialing 682-3343. EndBlock

Reviews & Openings:

Hobson's Choice, Playmakers Rep, thru Dec. 21; The Nutcracker, Carolina Ballet, Nov. 28-30, resumes Dec. 19-23; Stone Soup/Dragon Dumplings, Eckerd Theater, NCSU Center Stage, Stewart Theater, Nov. 30; Babes in Toyland, NRACT, Nov. 28-Dec. 7.

***1/2 Shopping and Fucking, Manbites Dog Theater--In this potent, full-frontal assault on consumerism without frontiers, people want to be owned, not loved and sex and relationships are bought--no, rented. Though Jay O'Berski shocks us out of complacency with male and female nudity mixed with existential nausea, what comes after shock remains open to questions.

Playwright Mark Ravenhill's version of the post-nuclear family--a menage a trois of London clubbies--starts to implode when the designated provider, Mark (Amit V. Mahtaney), tries to take himself out of the picture. Mark's goal isn't just to get off drugs--it's to get out of all his other suspected addictions, including aforementioned relationships with Lulu (Sarah Erickson) and Robbie (Mike Sacks).

Left to their own devices, all three demonstrate their various incompetencies. Lulu and Robbie can't deal drugs, but desperation makes them somewhat better at phone sex. Meanwhile, Mark can't seem not to need others. The trio gets further complicated when a fourth, Gary, gets pulled into conflicting negotiations for intimacy that are touching at times; profane at others. At various times all try to reduce basic human needs to commercial transactions, in a world where "the big stories" of religion, politics and higher ideals have all been snuffed out. But if we're not convinced that world is ours, at the end we're looking in on the emotionally (and chemically) disabled in some strange zoo--not looking around and asking "what have we come to?"

Still, one of the most unsettling and though-provoking shows of the season.

(Fri-Sun; 8:15 p.m; Sun., 3:15 p.m. Through Dec. 6. $15. 703 Foster St., Durham. 682-3343.)

* Nuncrackers, Meredith College--This least accomplished and hopefully final chapter in the Nunsense trilogy recycles not only Catholic cliches of dubious wit but Christmas canards of similar, um, freshness. A work obviously more appropriate to lowest community theater wastes the time and talents of Rachel Adams, Lormarev Jones, Tori Summers and others in a college drama program. Why? (resumes Dec. 2; Tue-Sat, 8:00 pm; Sat, 2pm, thru Dec. 6. Jones Auditorium, Meredith College, Raleigh. $8-$6. 760-2840.)

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