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Broadway Quality Belies Doomsayers' Bellyaching 

Sure, Les Miz is gone after running forever. Urinetown was evicted -- sending Lockstock and Barrel to the unemployment line. Neil Simon and Mary Tyler Moore couldn't get along through previews, and Farrah Fawcett's new show was kayoed before opening night. Ellen Burstyn's one-woman show couldn't outlast the next morning's reviews, and the once bankable Jackie Mason -- politically incorrect three years before anybody could spell Bill Maher -- couldn't last two full weeks.

But despite these well-publicized flops, fizzles, fights, and fade-aways, the sky isn't falling on Broadway.

With all the aborted, maimed, and euthanized projects that littered Manhattan's glitzy theatre district -- including a Miracle with Hilary Swank that never worked -- attendance at Broadway shows last year was off only 1.8% compared with 2002. Producers actually saw an increase of 3.2% in ticket revenues by boosting their prices.

Compare that with the movies' picture: attendance at America's cineplexes was down 5% and gross ticket sales were down 0.5%, the first decrease since 1991. Still, I haven't heard any predictions of the imminent demise of Hollywood, have you?

Hilary and MTM aren't the only big names from Hollywood and TV who are flirting with the Great White Way. Jimmy Smits, Ashley Judd, and John Lithgow are all doing straight plays. Adam Sandler and Phylicia Rashad are reportedly headed toward Manhattan marquees -- even Gennifer Flowers had a musical gig booked off-Broadway though her bouquet quickly wilted.

Fueling the year-end sales surge was the ballyhooed return of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick to The Producers, now extended through April 25. Real-life producers on both the left and right coasts are capitalizing on the phenomenon. The ink was barely dry on the duo's record-breaking sales numbers when the announcement came out that Lane and Broderick will star in an upcoming movie version of The Producers -- opposite red-hot Nicole Kidman. Nor will the team break up after the film shoot wraps. They're rumored to be fielding offers to star in revivals of La Cage aux Folles or Neil Simon's The Odd Couple.

Notwithstanding the widespread grumbling over ticket prices, Broadway is not in danger of becoming an elitist ghetto. But while the job market and economy breathed signs of fresh life in January, ticket sales took an unexpected nosedive. It's the weather, stupid! Some shows are shutting down prematurely while others are offering discounts.

We saw eight new Broadway shows over the holidays, plus two operas at the Met. The crowds were swelled with seasonal tourists, and it was obvious they were thrilled with the product. For the most part, their enthusiasm was amply justified.

Here's my roundup of the 10 shows we saw in the Big Apple:

PlaysThe Retreat from Moscow -- One of the reasons our lives and loves are so seemingly random is our instinctive grasp of the effort and cost of steering our own path. So we go with the flow. In a brilliantly layered performance, John Lithgow stars as a professor who has gone with the flow and endured his wife's tyranny for over 30 years -- until suddenly, he's had enough.

Eileen Atkins is no less brilliant as the snobbish, possessive, poetry-loving wife who belittles her Edward once too often. Edward's implacable demand for a divorce isn't nearly as shocking as Alice's disintegration when it happens. Because Alice hasn't done that one big thing to justify dissolving their marriage, Edward's retreat is that much more harrowing, riddled with guilt and self-doubt as his selfhood emerges from its long hibernation.

We're faced with the harsh reality that there was no extraordinarily powerful reason for Alice and Edward to marry in the first place. Ben Chaplin has been rightfully praised for his portrait of the couple's son Jamie. But while he's saddled with the task of serving as liaison between his feuding parents -- and of propping up his mom's collapsed morale -- playwright William Nicholson makes him so neutral that he's neutralized as a compelling character.

After more than two hours, Nicholson awkwardly attempts to correct the structural weakness of his drama by giving Jamie the last word. While this only underscores Jamie's lack of authority to make such a pronouncement, it is laudable that Nicholson wishes to balance things by taking the last jab away from either of his marital combatants.

Emasculating as Alice has been, she could have been confronted decades ago -- could have been given the second chance she begs for now. Edward's sudden maturation and liberation aren't wholly personal triumphs. His ego has been boosted by the love of a student's mother, never seen onstage, whom he marries.

So yes, Edward has learned to be cruel -- and to survive his own self-loathing. Life can be cruel, too, particularly when you allow yourself to be swept away by outside forces that determine your destination. A beautiful, humane, and brainy piece. By the time we reach the end of Edward's harrowing separation from Alice, the historical parallel with Napoleon's retreat doesn't seem overblown.

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