‘Orphaned’ on Broadway: Alec Baldwin blames New York Times critic Ben Brantley for early closing

Alec Baldwin in 'Orphans'

Alec Baldwin in ‘Orphans’

It’s springtime on Broadway and shows are closing like clockwork. Hands on a Hardbody, The Testament of Mary, Jekyll and Hyde, and now Lyle Kessler’s Orphans are all closing earlier than expected. Each show received mostly poor to neutral reviews in the major press, most prominently The New York Times. Orphans received even more press than they planned due in part to Shia LaBeouf’s dramatic exit and tweeted personal emails. Scandal and reviews aside, however, none of these shows could escape their poor ticket sales. Show business is still a business, after all.

But Alec Baldwin, who both produced and stars in Orphans on Broadway, says it’s a business that has changed for the worse. Orphans has just announced a closing date of May 19, after originally scheduling a limited run ending June 30. Someone did not believe the show could make rent, and based on the downward trending ticket averages, they were probably right. Baldwin wrote an editorial piece in The Huffington Post where he squarely laid the blame for all of this on the press that poo-pooed his show. In the editorial, Baldwin takes on the changing nature of the press itself.

“Tabloid journalism,” he says, “and its viral impact through the Internet in particular, has changed Broadway since 1992.” 1992 was the last time that Baldwin was on Broadway, starring in A Streetcar Named Desire. He goes on to explain exactly what is wrong with Internet tabloids: “Whatever information that is the most damning/salacious/judgmental is posted as quickly as possible and replaced by the next ‘event’ even more quickly.” And why is this so bad for a show? Because, “First impressions do count.”

It seems, Baldwin’s argument goes, that the first impression Orphans made on the public was one which discouraged people from attending and it was all because of the tabloids. Which is a shame, he contends: “Thus far we have performed 48 shows and we have had 48 consecutive standing ovations. That’s not easy with a drama.” Tom Sturridge, who also stars in the play, was nominated for a Tony Award. So maybe it is too bad that people won’t get to see this play. But whose fault is that? And what could be worse than tabloid journalism?

Alec Baldwin

Alec Baldwin

Baldwin has a definite answer. His essay takes a combative turn by going after The New York Times critic Ben Brantley. And he does this in very quotable, personal terms. For a man opposed to tabloid fodder, Baldwin might have reconsidered the effect of the following words: “Ben Brantley, who I must state up front is no fan of mine (every John Simon must have his Amanda Plummer, I suppose), is not a good writer.”

“Brantley is viewed as some odd, shriveled, bitter Dickensian clerk who has sought to assemble a compendium of essays on theatre, the gist of which often have no relationship to the events onstage themselves. Brantley carries the Times into the performance and little else. Beyond the obvious impact that a weak or scathing review in the Times has on sales, particularly with booking agents for tourists, no one I know of in the theatre reads Brantley except in the way that a doctor reads an x-ray to determine if you have cancer,” Baldwin wrote. “Brantley doesn’t offer criticism, per se, as much as he seeks to signal to some that they are actually unwelcome on Broadway. If you aren’t Brantley’s type, why bother? And it is this very ‘Why Bother’ approach of Brantley’s that I think is the most troubling.”

Now, as someone who reads Brantley’s reviews, I can find some sympathy here for what Baldwin has to say. Reading as Brantley mercilessly ridicules a show he hates (and hate is the intended emotion one senses most) can be hilarious, though in a way that’s only funny when it happens to someone else. When he loves a show the reviews are far less entertaining and maybe this does point to a deficiency in Brantley’s writing (or more likely it just says something about the Times’ readership). And I can also agree with Baldwin’s plea for constructive criticism when he says, “[a] critic’s job is to evaluate two things: what you are attempting to do and how close do you come to pulling it off.” At the same time, firing off your own cannon while asking for constructive criticism is like writing a peace treaty at gunpoint.

By the end of the essay, carried around the Internet by the very tabloid press he sets out to correct, Baldwin sounds a little like a sore loser. Which is unfortunate because he has some good things to say. They just might be hard to hear over his suggestions like, “it’s time for the Times to get rid of Brantley.” Much like LaBeouf’s unasked-for tweets, Baldwin’s comments will probably be forgotten soon.

But if not, and if Brantley responds, readers could be in for a little treat. Especially if LaBeouf chimes in again.

You can read the entirety of Baldwin’s essay here. You can read about what happened with LaBeouf and Orphans here and here. What do you think of Baldwin’s argument or of Orphan’s early closing?

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