Can a bad review kill a good show?

A growing number of Broadway producers, writers and theater people say the answer is yes - if it's in The New York Times.The long-simmering debate boiled over recently when British playwright David Hare's latest drama, "The Secret Rapture," closed shortly after Times drama critic Frank Rich soundly panned it as "coarse agitprop" and "so pallid an imitation of life."

Rich was not the only critic to voice unfavorable opinion. The Daily News called the play "too calculated, too schematic"; New York Newsday called it flawed but fascinating.

But as Bernard Gersten, executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater, put it, Rich uses "hydrogen bombs where ordinary old-fashioned artillery would do."

Hare, best known for his 1978 play "Plenty," fired off a letter to Rich, calling him irresponsible and "gratuitously abusive." Rich responded with a letter acknowledging "the consequences of my reviews," but considering himself honor-bound to express his opinion.

The feud landed on the front page of the trade newspaper Variety; excerpts from both letters were printed in such diverse publications as The Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice.

Hare's sentiments are not uncommon in the theater world, where shows are becoming more expensive - both to produce and to see. The complaints are usually expressed privately, but some people are speaking out.

Katharine Hepburn gave the producers of "A Few Good Men" a favorable quotation to use in their advertising after Rich trashed the drama last month.

"It's difficult and discouraging for any play to be mounted now - it costs so much - and people don't always go," she told columnist Liz Smith. "So I wanted to say that people have to make up their own minds. They have to read more notices than just one critic."

The 40-year-old Rich, who joined the Times in 1980, has clout that is unrivaled among critics in any other major art form.

When reviews are mixed, said press agent Merle Debuskey, "You'll find the show either succeeds or fails on what the Times critic has said."

Rich described this season's "Prince of Central Park" as "a numbing evening of . . . guileless amateurism"; the play folded after four performances. He called rock star Sting "a stiff" and his show, a revival of "3 Penny Opera," an "inert gray mass." Despite a $4.5 million advance, it closes New Year's Eve after only a two-month run.

But a rave from Rich can translate quickly into box office dollars.

"City of Angels," a new musical without big stars, was taking in about $18,000 a day in advance ticket sales before it opened, according to general manager Ralph Roseman. The day after it opened to mixed reviews - but lavish praise from Rich - the box office take was $324,700.

A bad Rich notice, however, is not always fatal. Lewis Allen, producer of "A Few Good Men," said the box office is struggling but alive for his show, a drama about military justice.

Rich has had little affection for Andrew Lloyd Webber, but the British composer's "Phantom of the Opera" is still the hottest ticket on Broadway and "Cats" has been running since 1982.

Rich declined to be interviewed for this story. In his letter to Hare, however, he acknowledged the influence of the Times, adding, "its credibility is a trust that all its writers work hard to preserve."

Hare called on the Times to find a replacement for theater critic Walter Kerr, who provided a second opinion with his separate reviews for the Sunday paper before retiring in 1983.

Warren Hoge, the Times assistant managing editor who oversees cultural coverage, said he is "very close" to hiring a second front-line critic.

"Frank himself would love to have some of the pressure removed," Hoge said.

Clive Barnes, the Times theater critic for 10 years before going to the New York Post in 1977, said he had his own run-ins with producers when he was in Rich's shoes.

Barnes believes many producers are just looking for a scapegoat if their plays bomb: "You have to remember that most of these shows that get terrible notices are terrible shows."