In case anyone’s been wondering: I won’t be reviewing Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark until Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark opens. And when will that be? Producers now say February 7 is their drop-dead (though, understandably, they’re not using that particular phrase). But conspiracy theorists whisper never: The producers will keep stalling indefinitely, putting off Judgment Day again and again while gorging themselves on full-priced $200-plus tickets and a built-in audience supply line comprised of families, comic-book fanatics, and the expanding snuff-theater niche. Taken at its word by a credulous media Establishment, this criminally exigent Upton Sinclair rendering tank of a musical (the argument goes) will continue grinding the bones of its Stockholm Syndrome’d actors to make its bread and soaking up hard-earned tourist dollars better spent on a fifth trip to Mamma Mia! ... until it’s stopped by a SuperBestFriends-esque corps of heroic critics, willing to shuck off hidebound protocol and call-’em-like-they-seez-’em. And, in fact, a couple of critics (not to mention scads of quasi-critics) have already overleapt the imaginary wall separating preview performances (traditionally forbidden to critics because the show is still evolving) from press nights (when the show is officially considered frozen).
Me, I can’t say I find this consumer-protection argument very compelling — not yet, at least. Sure, Spider-Man is trading heavily on its built-in brand recognition and making a buck any way it can — that’s natural enough, considering it’s a private enterprise. The show is charging full price for a work-in-progress, and one could argue that it’s selling substandard goods to a public largely uneducated about the difference between a preview performance and the final product. But that particular issue has been covered pretty thoroughly by theater reporters, who’ve made quite the feast of this show. If there’s a ticket buyer alive who doesn’t know something of Spidey’s woes, I’d like to meet him and rent the rock he lives under for weekly sensory-deprivation sessions. Patrick Healy and Michael Riedel have made the non-comatose public painfully aware of what they might or might not expect to get for their money, and more power to 'em: They’re reporters. That’s their job. (Laying out all the scandal and mayhem in vivid detail, they’re basically serving as Spidey’s streem-team — they’ve probably sold more tickets than those dementia-inducing commercials.) But critics, I think, needn’t weigh in on matters of economic justice. (They’ve got enough on their plates Googling synonyms for “boring” and “silly” and “mise en scene.”)
Look, I’m not defending Spidey, per se. Hell, I’ve enjoyed the nonstop web-tweaking from Conan and Colbert so much, I kinda don’t want it to end. But the fact is, the creators of Spider-Man, whatever their other sins may or may not be, appear to be using this elongated preview period the way God intended: to make changes in their show, and test them in front of a live audience. (I’m leaving aside the show’s woeful safety record because I feel that’s an entirely separate issue, which shouldn’t be conflated with to-pre-review-or-not-to-pre-review.) That these “changes” amount to a full-scale finishing-the-hat — that the show appears not to have been fully conceived when it entered previews — is none of my business. I’d like my review to stand, when I finally get to write it. So I’ll see the show when it’s finished, and not a moment before.
But is the nightmare scenario — an infinitely, cynically delayed opening night — a real possibility? I suppose. Shows have tried it in the past, with mixed results. My colleague John Simon recalls the 1979 musical Sarava, which ran reduced-price previews for six months before critics revolted, unleashed a torrent of unauthorized pans, and euthanized the show. On a much tinier scale, the Culture Project seemed to be attempting a similar maneuver last fall when it indefinitely delayed the opening of Imagining Heschel, a mystifyingly under-rehearsed two-hander starring a very confused-looking Richard Dreyfuss. (The windfall: four whopping weeks of critic-free, half-memorized mumbling at the Cherry Lane. Bravissimo! I’m sure the ill-gotten grosses were lavish enough to cover an orgiastic cast party at Taco Bell.)
Now maybe I’m overanalyzing this, but the question of whether or not to review Spider-Man feels like it’s shaping up into some massive generational clash, a debate pitting ossified old-media pieties against the always-salubrious effects of total transparency. Why respect the boundaries set by a big-money Broadway megalith? Isn’t that like letting Lehman Bros. regulate itself? Everything’s built in full view of the public these days — the iPhone leaked, and so should Spidey. Why should any commercial art form be spared the fate of music, movies, TV? Abominations grow in the dark, and demand a thorough Assange-ing, isn’t that the way? Well, ultimately, yes. But I just don’t think we’re in a Pentagon Papers kinda situation with Spider-Man right now. If there’s yet another delay, the question is worth revisiting. For now, I can honestly say I’m not breaking down the Foxwoods Theater’s door. I can wait patiently — spiderlike. (Hell, I can wait forever, long as I have this, perhaps the definitive Spidey adaptation.)
But maybe you disagree? Oh, I sure hope you do. Makes things a lot more interesting around here, let me tell you. (We haven’t had any concussions or 30-foot falls around here since the last round of budget cuts.)