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China Doll
Photograph: Jeremy DanielChina Doll

Al Pacino leads the worst Broadway shows of 2015

Written by
David Cote
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We’re just days away from the end of 2015 and every pundit has ranked his or her favorite plays and musicals (or books, movies, TV shows, what-have-you). Reading some of these lists, you can vicariously groove on the celebratory, laudatory vibe: It’s nice to recognize and salute quality, isn’t it? Sure it is. But you know what else is fun? Remembering the crappiest garbage you had to sit through—stuff that, months later, leaves a sour and unwholesome slime in the mouth. You’ve read our 20 best theater list; here the five worst things I saw on Broadway this year, in order of sheer awfulness.

1. China Doll. Easily the most reviled play of the year, this stultifying non-starter from David Mamet consists largely of Al Pacino shuffling around his character’s penthouse pad, mumbling or barking into a Bluetooth about a private jet, sales taxes and a governor’s vendetta against him. The shapeless, dramatically inert play is bad enough, but Pacino’s haggard, listless performance is painful to watch. Maybe by the final week he’ll learn his lines, and stop glancing into the wings for a video prompt.

2. Amazing Grace. Normally we love seeing newcomers on Broadway with songs to sing and stories to tell. But Christopher Smith brought nothing new to the Great White Way, just ’80s sonic schmaltz, inexplicably bankrolled by wealthy backers. The policeman-turned-composer-lyricist saw a good story in the life of an 18th-century English slave trader who converted to Christianity and eventually wrote the lyrics to the hymn “Amazing Grace.” But his treatment was bombastic, cartoonish and sanctimonious. Worse, it distorted the facts, so that smarmy piety replaced complexity. It’s been too racially fucked-up a year (century?) for such tone-deaf pabulum.

3. Misery. Has Bruce Willis distinguished himself over the past 20-odd years as a formidable stage actor, able to disappear inside characters, alter his physical and vocal aspect and fill a 1,000-seat house with intelligence, charisma and passion? No; he’s been jumping from burning helicopters onto speeding trucks while bellowing catchphrases. In William Goldman’s rather crummy stage adaptation of his own 1990 screenplay, Willis was passive, blank, and entirely overpowered by someone who knows her way around a stage: Laurie Metcalf. As a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Willis sheepishly admitted he didn’t know if Misery author Stephen King had attended or was going to attend. That was sad.

4. Finding Neverland. This Harvey Weinstein-produced stage version of the Miramax film lacks pretty much everything good about the movie: charm, subtlety and imagination. Instead, it has an anachronistic Britpop score (muscled into our ears via a strident sound design) and overstrained whimsy that doesn’t know the difference between twee and creepy. There are likeable and talented folks in the cast such as Matthew Morrison (leaving Jan 24), Laura Michelle Kelly and Teal Wicks, but the synthetic score and ramshackle book never leave the ground. Still, last week they cleared $1 million at the box office, so it’s doing well. In cases like these, you have to believe either the critics are idiots or the public is. I’ll go with the public. Even The Addams Family ran for 21 months.

5. Living on Love. Although it’s the least painful show here, playwright Joe DiPietro’s clunker (adapted from Garson Kanin’s 1985 out-of-town flop Peccadillo) was a dreadful waste of everyone’s time. A strenuously unfunny tale of artistic temperament, diva worship and a rocky but loving marriage, the would-be farce offered the sad spectacle of world-renowned opera soprano Renée Fleming (not advancing her acting career) slathering olive oil over Jerry O'Connell’s chest in a childish attempt to seduce him. Forget a group of talented actors left out to dry; when you feel sorry for the props master, you know there’s trouble.

Here's to better shows in 2016. And Happy New Year to everyone!

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