The unethusiastic critical reception for “The Exorcist,” John Pielmeier’s stage adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 best-seller, may well dampen the enthusiasm for an immediate Broadway transfer. The highly-anticipated world premiere, starring Brooke Shields and directed by John Doyle, opened on July 11th at Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse to less than head-spinning reviews. Bob Verini wrote in Variety that the director’s cerebral approach couldn’t match the 1973 film’s memorable frights: “His black magic never quite rises to spine-chilling.” Charles McNulty in the Los Angeles Times faulted the drama for being “more interested in stimulating ruminations about the nature of evil and the meaning of faith than inducing anyone to scream, faint, or fumble for a barf bag.” Entertainment Weekly awarded a “C” to the production, which co-stars Richard Chamberlain as Father Merrin (Max von Sydow in the film) and Emily Yetter as Regan, here a demonically-possessed young adult rather than child.
The New York Post’s Michael Riedel reported last month that Broadway producers Ben Sprecher and Sonia Friedman were hot to trot on the property, even going ahead and offering Malcolm McDowell the role of Father Merrin should the transfer to Broadway actually happen. (The actor was not available for the Geffen tryout.) Given the brand, it’s not surprising that “The Exorcist” would arouse a lot of commercial interest. But managing expectations is quite another thing. Although Teller, of Penn and Teller, has contributed an effective levitation scene and other minor thrills, this production, set in a church sanctuary, relies much more on psychological horrors and religious issues to propel its story-telling. There’s no guarantee that’ll pack them into a Broadway theater the way that William Friedkin’s movie classic drew the multitudes. That mandate has become even more difficult after nearly four decades in which the devil has more than gotten his due on screen, if not on stage.
A spokesperson for the Geffen noted in an email that she did not know what the future might hold for the production, which runs through August 12th. “As with all of our world premieres, we absolutely hope they have a life after their run here whether it’s regional, in NY or anywhere else,” she wrote. The afterlife for this show will depend less on God or the Devil and more on what the creators do when they go back to the drawing board.
Image: AP Photo/Geffen Playhouse, Michael Lamont