Final curtain?


New York -- YOU KNOW Broadway is dead as a showcase for American drama when a) there are no new plays running there; b) Neil Simon announces he would rather be in Greenwich Village; c) New York's attorney general is closing in on its box offices, or d) the theater industry's leaders are fighting in public, like passengers on the Titanic shoving each other out of the lifeboats.

The answer is, e) all of the above.

Right now, Broadway is down to two plays -- the sadly inexorable result of production costs so high that only musical spectacles with huge audiences can afford them. Facing this reality, Neil Simon, the street's most commercially successful writer for 30 years, is defecting with his newest comedy to a small theater Off Broadway.

Attorney General G. Oliver Koppell, meanwhile, plans to finish out his term with a bang: his full-speed-ahead ticket-scalping investigation may soon explain why the public can never buy good seats for the few shows that are running. And Emanuel Azenberg, Mr. Simon's producer, told a New York Times reporter he had declared "war" on Gerald Schoenfeld of the Shubert Organization, the all-powerful Broadway landlord.

Should Mr. Simon put all these doings in a farce, he might have his biggest hit since "The Odd Couple."

But that's precisely the problem. It is no longer possible to have a cat-or-chandelier-free hit on Broadway -- a non-musical play that makes a profit for its investors -- because the investment cannot be recouped, no matter how astronomic the ticket price. Even "Angels in America," the most acclaimed drama of the last decade, will be in the red when it closes early next year, according to one of its producers, despite a 20-month Broadway run that "Long Day's Journey Into Night" would have envied.

Only lunatics would produce plays on a street where "Angels" fears to tread. Which is not to say that good plays disappear: When Neil Simon goes Off Broadway, he'll find Edward Albee, Sam Shepard and Terrence McNally among his neighbors.

But some of the most beautiful theaters in the world -- all of them perfect for intimate dramas by such writers -- are on the brink of permanent obsolescence. No sooner has the long-defunct 42nd Street reached the brink of redevelopment -- Disney's renovation of the New Amsterdam Theater should start in the spring -- than the other theatrical blocks just to its north are going dark.

This is both an urban and cultural crisis. Yet the Broadway establishment's response is to deny that anything is wrong. Mr. Schoenfeld told Donald McNeil of the Times "a lot of producers" are bringing plays to Broadway, though he could only come up with a tiny list of mostly British imports.

In private, almost any major player in the theater will say the truth: Not only has the curtain fallen on the Broadway play, but also nothing short of a complete overhaul of Broadway business practices from ground zero will bring it back. Mr. Azenberg unfairly blamed Mr. Schoenfeld for the entire mess, when in truth inefficient labor practices, greedy big-name talent and rising advertising costs are as much a part of the problem as high-handed management.

With the old-timers either in denial or combat, only newcomers can break the deadlock. One hopeful sign is a recent move by Rocco Landesman, the one Broadway theater operator under 70 and the only one who flatly concedes, "Unless we do something, there won't be a dramatic theater on Broadway."

Shortly after Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen and Steven Spielberg announced their new Hollywood studio, Mr. Landesman, eyeing a theatrical link, phoned to set up a meeting. Even before he did, the Katzenberg trio, theater fans all, had talked seriously about adding theater to their studio's announced list of activities.

Should the persistent Mr. Landesman enlist the new studio's tough businessmen in his ambitions, he might not only light up some dark marquees but also light a fire under a Broadway establishment that dozes and bickers even as its quarter-century-long epic of decline hurtles to its tragic end.

Frank Rich is a columnist for the New York Times.

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