A substantial hit at Arena Stage last February, Dario Fo's "Accidental Death of an Anarchist" was nonetheless considered a long shot for Broadway. Yesterday, after a drubbing from The New York Times, the odds of its even surviving the month lengthened substantially.
From the start, the show faced considerable obstacles. The playwright, a popular street clown and satirist in Italy, was largely unknown in America. His work, an antic political farce with left-wing sensibilities, was hardly customary Broadway fare. The star, English actor Jonathan Pryce, was acknowledged by his peers as a virtuoso comic, but his name carried little weight with the general public, though he won a Tony award in 1976 for "Comedians."
And then there was that title. Death sells on Broadway only when it's a salesman's, and especially if the salesman happens to be Dustin Hoffman. If "Anarchist" was to overcome those obstacles, it was going to need a big critical boost, especially from the powerful Times.
Yesterday, first-night New York critics turned in their verdicts and just about all agreed that the Pryce is right. But the production, staged by Arena's associate producing director Douglas Wager, and the play itself met with decidedly mixed reactions.
The harshest judgment came from The Times' Frank Rich, who described the farce as "considerably less biting than the average David Letterman monologue and not nearly as funny." Noting that the State Department has until recently denied Fo entry into the United States, Rich wrote that audiences at the Belasco Theatre "can't be blamed if they wonder what all the fuss was about."
Douglas Watt's more positive assessment in the Daily News celebrated Pryce's performance as "unmatched in comic delight since the days of the great stage comedians," although it concluded that the evening was essentially a "solo show." Clive Barnes echoed that opinion in The New York Post, calling Pryce "that rare thing, a unique actor, a character beyond characterization who commands a stage as if steering a chariot." But Fo, Barnes also felt, "loses a great deal in translation" and his plays "amuse in fragments, their humors never coalescing into any comic vision."
Where this left the $750,000 production was undetermined yesterday. As of opening, the show had a small advance sale of approximately $150,000. The low-priced preview performances had sold out, and audience reaction was enthusiastic. But it was questionable whether word of mouth could overcome the blast from The Times. At stake, too, were Arena's royalties from the Broadway production, described by Arena's managing director Tom Fichandler as "a small percentage of the weekly gross."
There was no official talk yesterday of posting a closing notice -- not yet -- and one source close to the production speculated that "Anarchist" would run "at least until November 25." But the show's publicist, Merle Debuskey, acknowledged that the Times review was "grievous."
"Whether or not it's mortal," Debuskey added, "only time will tell. Unfortunately, we don't have the sort of sound foundation that allows us to sit back and say, 'We know audiences love this show. The review will go away. All we have to do is wait.' "
Producer Alexander Cohen has long held the American rights to "Anarchist," which he envisioned as a vehicle for Pryce. Dissatisfied with the existing translations, however, Cohen allowed Arena Stage to commission a new adaptation of the play last season. After seeing the Washington production, he decided it was the version he would produce on Broadway. In addition to Wager and Richard Nelson, the adaptor, Cohen also hired Arena's set designer, Karl Eigsti, and lighting designer, Allen Lee Hughes, to re-create their work in New York.
With Pryce set as the star, the five supporting roles were recast in August. Among those Wager settled on, after auditioning 500 actors, were Patti LuPone, who won fame in "Evita," and Bill Irwin, who recently gave "Anarchist" an unexpected shot of publicity by winning a MacArthur Foundation grant. None of them, however, arms "Anarchist" with the sort of star power that galvanizes crowds.
Meanwhile, Nelson rewrote and updated his script, eliminating the jibes he'd specifically tailored for Washington. ("When they get through with us," moaned a corrupt police chief in the Arena version, "we won't even be able to get jobs as lobbyists.") Cracks about Wall Street and the prime rate, presumably more pertinent to the New York scene, took their place. References to the elections were also added and Pryce was given a moment to imitate President Reagan's rambling summation at the end of the second presidential debate. (So successful was Pryce's impersonation that he now delivers the speech twice.)
"Anarchist," which has received more than 150 productions worldwide, was inspired by an actual event -- the terrorist bombing of a Milan bank that killed 16 people, and the subsequent interrogation of a railway worker, who either fell or was pushed from the upper floor of a Milan police station. In Fo's commedia dell'arte treatment of the tragedy, an affable fool with a penchant for disguise wanders into the police station and is mistaken for a prosecuting judge sent to reopen the inquest into the anarchist's death. He then proceeds with his nonstop antics to unravel a police cover-up and expose rampant corruption of the government.
It was in that role, played at Arena by Richard Bauer, that Pryce made such hay with the critics, despite a lingering case of the flu, which felled him in the middle of Monday night's performance and kept him off the stage until opening night. "The man can do no wrong," rhapsodized the Associated Press. "A daringly manic performance," said WNBC-TV, while WBS-TV called him "a comic astonishment, a whirlwind, a lunatic clowning."
Wager conceded yesterday that he was "deeply angry" about the downbeat notice in The Times. "But no matter what happens," he said, "I still feel I can go home and say I directed a Broadway show I'm thoroughly proud of, one that doesn't underestimate an audience's abilities. It was tremendously exhilarating from day one -- maybe because of the danger involved."
With "Anarchist's" fate hanging in the balance, Wager begins casting on Monday for Arena's upcoming production of Shaw's "Man and Superman." "I'm lucky," the director said. "I have a place I can go back to."