First there was the Tony nomination for Best Play. Then the closing. Within hours came news that the run of “The Testament of Mary” — which also received nods for lighting and sound but not for its acclaimed star, Fiona Shaw, or director, Deborah Warner — would end on Sunday, May 5.
The drama, based on the novella by Colm Toibin and adapted for the stage by its author, is a radical interpretation of the Mother of God as a woman smothering her grief over the crucifixion in a purifying rage, fortified with cigarettes the occasional nip of alcohol. It was scheduled to play a 12-week engagement through June 16, but made it through only 16 regular performances and 27 previews.
The show opened on April 22 to a mixed critical reception. But what may have driven the nail in the coffin was Ben Brantley’s carping review in the New York Times. An already struggling show had to cope with a thumbs down from the Paper of Record. There has been a diminution of power among Broadway’s critical establishment because of the Internet. In the case of the Times, it once had the clout to close plays — or dent their momentum — with a pan. That is no longer the case. One need only look at shows like “Pippin” and “Motown,” not to mention “Spider-Man,” which are thriving despite the lack of a Times imprimatur. By the same token, the paper raved about “Lysistrata Jones” and it quickly folded. Where the critics for the Times still hold sway is among dramas, particularly those which are not driven by box-office stars. Had Brantley raved about “Testament” (and it did receive great notices, such as one from Jesse Green writing in New York Magazine) it’s unlikely it would be closing.
The quick shuttering also demonstrates how little Tony nominations impact the box office. “Kinky Boots,” “Matilda,” and the revival of “Pippin,” which led in the number of nominations, may get a boost. But they were already raking in the bucks. Chris Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” which earned six nods, including Best Play, probably could reap the most benefit from the new attention. But this funny and clever show has been building on its good buzz and the presence in the cast of Sigourney Weaver, who was not nominated for a Tony in a category — Leading Actress in a Play was extremely competitive this seasons. Bette Midler also failed to make the cut for her highly praised appearance in John Logan’s “I’ll Eat You Last.”
“The Testament of Mary” now also joins a growing list of casualties among plays dealing in some respects with faith: “Grace,” “Scandalous,” “Leap of Faith,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Godspell,” and “Sister Act” all flopped. Only “The Book of Mormon,” which is a phenomenal success, has apparently been able to deliver questions of faith in the irreverent way to which the ticket-buying public responds.