Jeremy Irons has been in plays by all the great masters. And now he’s in a play by the creator of Scott Baio’s Charles in Charge. The comedy-drama Impressionism opened on Broadway this week, starring Irons and Joan Allen; the author, Michael Jacobs, had a play produced on Broadway when he was 22 years old, but soon after that, he moved to Hollywood, where he spent two decades creating sitcoms like the long-running Boy Meets World. Now he’s back on Broadway with a play that attracted A-list stars and a famous director (Jack O’Brien, Hairspray). It also attracted publicity for its rehearsal troubles: it was supposed to open two weeks ago, but the premiere was delayed, and the producer decided to reduce it from two acts to one so people wouldn’t walk out during the intermission. Can a sitcom writer succeed on Broadway? Come to think of it, that sounds like the premise for a sitcom.
Not that Jacobs is the first person to go from sitcoms to Broadway. Bob Boyett, the producer of such Broadway hits as The Drowsy Chaperone and Spamalot, was the executive producer of shows like Full House, Perfect Strangers and Family Matters; he even hired his Full House star Bob Saget to take over a role in The Drowsy Chaperone. There’s a reason people like Boyett and Jacobs have switched to live theatre: their TV careers were built on a type of show that used to be very common, but no longer exists. Their field was the family-oriented network sitcom, clean enough for kids but also aimed at their parents. Today, kids and their parents often have separate television sets, and there are shows aimed solely at kids and solely at adults, but rarely both. Producers of family entertainment needed to find another line of work.
And if television doesn’t need family-friendly comedies anymore, Broadway sort of does; with its dependence on tourism, New York theatre needs to attract viewers of different ages in a way that TV no longer does. In explaining why he was attracted to Impressionism, O’Brien said that he liked the fact that “Nobody shoots up, nobody gets raped, and nobody changes sex”—in other words, that it’s basically a play for all ages and demographics, like sitcoms used to be. Besides, since a typical sitcom episode is structured and staged like a one-act play, people with experience in that field know more about commercial theatre than the average playwright. In an era when Broadway is struggling to keep its audiences, it’s not surprising there’s a demand for people like Jacobs and Boyett, who have spent their careers figuring out what makes live audiences laugh.
But even successful TV producers have as many flops as hits, and there’s a chance that Impressionism could meet the same reception as Jacobs-created bombs like You Wish and Lost At Home. The play, about a romance between an art dealer (Allen) and a photographer (Irons), isn’t trying to be a sitcom on the stage; it has plenty of arty theatrical devices like jumping around in time, casting the actors in multiple roles, and using paintings and stylized lighting to comment on the story. One of the complaints from preview audiences was that it was too hard to follow. And yet it has also come in for criticism as being too sentimental and sitcom-ish. One online reviewer, writing about a preview of Impressionism at the blog mathewslikelystory.blogspot.com, said that what works in half-hour television doesn’t work for two hours on stage: “Chatty dialogue does not a play make, though it does a teleplay make, and the author has extensive TV experience.”
If the play doesn’t work, a lot of theatregoers will view it as a sitcom episode that ran too long, and its problems might be blamed on a writer with too much TV experience and too few theatre credentials. Irons has already taken a step in that direction by telling the New York Times that the distinguished cast and crew were “going on hunch” by picking a play by an untried writer. And that was before the rewrites started.
That’s why a lot of TV people may be looking anxiously at Impressionism: if it succeeds, it will validate the idea that there shouldn’t be a barrier between commercial theatre and commercial television. Before Impressionism started, producer Bill Haber told syndicated columnist Liz Smith he’d received a letter from Susan Harris, creator of The Golden Girls, saying she was impressed with Jacobs’ play. He clearly has other sitcom people rooting for him. And if it doesn’t work out, there’s no shame in being remembered for bringing us My Two Dads.