Moon Under Fire

In the end the Remains Theatre’s world premiere of John Guare’s Moon Under Miami played out like a wicked comedy Guare himself might have written, wherein well-meaning folks are gulled into believing one thing when quite the opposite proves true. Rarely in Chicago theater has preopening hype been so intense. A lengthy cover story in the Trib’s Sunday Arts section focused on the unique collaboration between Guare and his set designer, noted New York artist Red Grooms. The Sun-Times weighed in with a business feature touting the local philanthropic heavy hitters, headed by Allen Turner and Stanley Freehling, who raised approximately $180,000 to underwrite the production. And in the May issue of Chicago magazine Penelope Mesic wrote, “SEER PREDICTS AUDIENCES STUNNED! OUTRAGED! DELIGHTED!”

While there were certainly plenty of stunned observers at the Moon Under Miami opening on April 30, few were delighted. Trib critic Richard Christiansen said the play “is destined to go down as one of the great train wrecks of Chicago theater history.” The Sun-Times’s Hedy Weiss agreed, calling the show “as thick and motionless as its swampy setting.” Reader chief critic Albert Williams said: “It’s a mess masquerading as a play.”

Though the production had sold a substantial number of tickets prior to its world premiere, sales plummeted immediately after the slew of negative notices. Remains artistic director Neel Keller and the company’s board of directors moved quickly to try to contain the damage. At a board meeting last Thursday, they decided to close the show on May 21, three weeks earlier than originally scheduled. Still, Remains board president Georgia Fogelson sought to maintain an upbeat attitude: “This certainly doesn’t dim our faith in theater; we had a world-class playwright, a world-class artist, and an energetic director in Neel Keller.”

Fogelson has another reason to keep a stiff upper lip: Remains may emerge from this debacle with its balance sheet relatively unscathed. Keller says it cost the company $183,000 to mount the show, not much more than the fund-raising group contributed to the production. Remains itself will only have to pick up the tab for any operating expenses that aren’t covered by rapidly dwindling ticket sales.

But it may take a while for the company’s image to recover. Some board members stoically noted that, despite the play’s poor reception, the company should be applauded for thinking big and taking risks when so many theater companies are playing it safe. Even the Moon Under Miami fund-raising committee members kept a relatively cheery outlook, at least publicly. “You win some, and you lose some,” says Freehling. Throughout the rehearsal period, the play underwent considerable revision. Explains Keller: “We really didn’t have a completed script until previews began.” Since Guare had been working on the script for at least eight years, that might have been all the tip-off anyone needed.

Fogelson says Remains will move slowly in deciding where to go next. No plans for next season have yet been discussed. Says Fogelson: “We have to get through the grieving first; we’re still reeling.”

Love Underappreciated

Chicago theater suffered yet another black eye on Broadway with the swift shuttering of Alexandra Gersten’s My Thing of Love; the dark comedy about adultery opened at the Martin Beck Theatre May 3 and will close this Sunday. Premiered by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1992 and quickly picked up for Broadway by veteran producers Barry and Fran Weissler, the production was greeted with all-too-familiar anti-Chicago sentiment by some of New York’s most influential theater critics. The worst offender was the Daily News’s Howard Kissell: “Like last season’s moronic The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, this play comes to us from the Steppenwolf Company of Chicago. Only a decade ago, I thought the salvation of the New York theater lay in Chicago. Yes, a lot of what Chicago sent us was adolescent, but I thought that pubescent energy might be useful. Alas, based on what has come since, Chicago theater has only become more adolescent.” New York Times critic Vincent Canby, who also noted that the play was originally produced at Steppenwolf and had won the Joseph Jefferson Award for best new work, described it as “unfinished.”

Going into last week’s opening, the critics certainly had plenty of ammunition with which to take aim at Gersten’s first effort as a playwright. Unlike The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, which moved smoothly through rehearsals and previews toward its ugly critical reception on Broadway, My Thing of Love suffered one setback after another. Steppenwolf ensemble member Tom Irwin replaced the original male lead during rehearsals. Citing an unpleasant working environment, director Michael Maggio walked away from the production the day before previews were to begin. In the next week a supporting actress was fired and replaced by her understudy, and the young children who briefly appear at the end of the play were replaced by their recorded voices. Also during previews the producers scrapped print ads featuring childlike stick figures and switched to ads like those used to promote the original Steppenwolf production.

Meanwhile, in one of the kinder remarks about the production, the New York Post’s Clive Barnes predicted audiences would hear much more from Gersten. Chicago will likely hear more from her quite soon: Steppenwolf is expected to mount her new play, Supple in Combat, next season.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Dan Rest.