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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

Broadway Week offers two-for-one tickets

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in a scene

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in a scene from the Sydney Theatre Company's production of "The Maids." Credit: Stephanie Berger

It is the day before the day we know that summer becomes history. And Broadway, at least, is prepared.

As most of us cling to the dimming of authorized beach brain, the promotion known as Broadway Week kicks off tomorrow with two weeks (don't ask for logic) of two-for-one tickets to 21 big shows. That is, twofers are being offered from Labor Day through Sept. 14 to long-running favorites, plus hits from last season and several shows that haven't officially opened yet. (nycgo.com/broadwayweek for availability.)

But not so fast. We have a sliver of time left to take a last look back at the summer's theater -- the highlights, disappointments and an unexpected crisis with aggressive panhandlers dressed as plushy cartoon characters and superheroes in Times Square. (Et tu, Hello Kitty?) Harassment has become so bad that a bill is expected to be introduced in the City Council that requires the costumed characters to be licensed.

In less alarming news, the Lincoln Center Festival, traditionally a rich source of grand adventure each July, concentrated less on theater and more on ballet and classical music this year. I wasn't here to see the festival's August centerpiece, Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in Genet's "The Maids," but my colleague Steve Parks wrote colorfully about the production's "sometimes riveting, other times banal and distracting" cinematic videos.

"Holler If Ya Hear Me," a dramatically flawed but terrifically performed rap musical based on Tupac Shakur songs, was the rare big show to open on Broadway in the summer. It closed 38 performances later, losing most of its $8 million capitalization. I can't help wondering if the production would have had a life, or at least a chance, if it had used the summer to market itself to traditional and new demographics, then opened when people were paying attention in the fall.

One of my favorite plays of the year, Stephen Adly Guirgis' wise and exuberantly funny urban dramedy, "Between Riverside and Crazy," opened without fanfare in the dead-of-summer lineup at Off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company to some of the best reviews of the year. Alas, the production had to close last weekend because of schedules and the onslaught of the Atlantic's fall season. But artistic director Neil Pepe reassuringly tells me, "We're going to do everything we can to give this production a future."

I don't envy the challenge. Looking at Broadway this summer, it was more obvious than ever that Tony Awards really do mean life and death -- even for well-received shows.

Look at the spoofy dark-horse, "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," which struggled at the box office from November until getting 10 Tony nominations in May and winning best musical in June. As of the week ending Aug. 17, the show has been regularly selling out.

After a season with no breakout hits and no sure things, shows that ended up with Tonys -- "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" -- have had healthy summers with the tourists. Shows that were shut out of prizes at the national telecast -- including the wonderful revival of "Violet" -- never caught on. "The Bridges of Madison County" closed three weeks after the nominations were announced. "After Midnight" closed two weeks after the telecast. "If/Then" is holding on, thanks to the singular appeal of Idina Menzel. But "Rocky" disappeared Aug. 17 and "Bullets Over Broadway" shut down last weekend.

Finally, there has been the altogether unprecedented catastrophe involving grown-ups in animal costumes, naked cowgirls and people standing on crates or stilts pretending to be the Statue of Liberty. At first, they were a little cute, greeting families and offering to pose for souvenir photos as if creatures from the genuine brands.

But things have rapidly become less cuddly. In what I'm sure the Broadway League wouldn't like called the Summer of Elmo, some of the so-called street performers started demanding tips and getting belligerent if the tips weren't generous enough. Last month, a Spider-Man was charged with assaulting an officer and resisting arrest. A Cookie Monster allegedly pushed a kid and there was a report of groping by a Super Mario.

Clearly, Broadway producers and the city, decades after the bad-old-days of '70s Times Square, are not happy. Police leaflets are warning pedestrians that tips are optional. The costumed characters have responded by making a case for their freedom of speech. Earlier this month, some formed a union-like group, New York Artists United for a Smile, to regulate their workers and weed out what they claim are bad apples.

Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League, counters the free speech argument. As she recently told The Associated Press, "aggressive characters" are responsible for a downturn in theater business. "They are making it a commercial enterprise," she said. "They are selling a service and asking for money."

Gia Storms, spokeswoman for the Times Square Alliance, told me she had "no doubt that negative behavior is 100 percent affecting the experience and the perception" of the Broadway area, which sees between 350,000 and 450,000 pedestrians -- and up to 80 costumed characters -- a day. "If people are afraid," she added, "there will be an economic impact."

"We've well documented dozens and dozens of complaints from people living and working here and coming through," she said. "We are really trying to protect consumers from particularly egregious instances."

According to Storms, Alliance officials think that licensing is the "best shot for curtailing bad behavior." The licensing would include criminal background checks and mandate identification numbers to indicate, as she puts it, "who is behind the mask."

On the other hand, she is quick to point out that Times Square has always been a "quirky gathering place. We recognize the need to balance spontaneous expression and manage the activity."

I asked how long Times Square has had this problem. She said it has really been just in the past 18 months. I asked whether, just maybe, there is a relationship between Broadway's equivalent of the squeegee men and the crowds hanging out in the plazas created by former Mayor Bloomberg.

"Definitely not," she insisted, "This has nothing to do with the additional public spaces."

Cold weather might help.

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