Theatres and Theatre Companies
At the end of the 2016-2017 season, the sad news came that the Pearl Theatre Co., along-time Off Broadway stalwart, was folding, a victim primarily of the skyrocketing rents plaguing anyone who tries to do business in New York City. Founded in 1984 by Shepard Sobel and his actress wife Joanne Camp, the Pearl specialized in solid productions of classic plays with minimal directorial intrusion, which made the Pearl seem increasingly quaint in these Ivo van Hove and Sam Gold times, which are more about the director’s take on a play than the play itself.
For most of its time with us, the Pearl was in residence at Theatre 80, a shabby but cozy theatre in St. Mark’s Place. When they lost that space in 2007, then moved uptown to Stage II at the City Center, and then to the theatre in W. 42nd St. built by Signature Theatre, vacated by them when they built the spectacular Signature Center a block east.
What was unique about the Pearl is that they employed a company of actors. There have been other companies who had acting companies, such as Atlantic, Circle Rep, the Jean Cocteau and Irish Rep, but mostly these were basically pools from which casts could be drawn. The Pearl had an actual acting company, and if one went there a lot over the years, as I did, these actors began to seem like old friends – fine actors such as Sean McCall, Dan Daily, Chris Mixon, Carol Schultz, Jolly Abraham and Bradford Cover. McCall, a short guy with a beautiful baritone voice, played most of the young men. Dan Daily, a stocky fellow with a tenor voice, played most of the old guys and Carol Schultz was the older women. Daily was particularly good in plays by Shaw and he put me in mind more than once of the late, great Philip Bosco, also outstanding in Shaw. He was superb as Tarleton in MISALLIANCE but equally good as William the waiter in YOU NEVER CAN TELL, and he stole the show as the Fire Chief in Ionesco’s THE BALD SOPRANO. He was also a memorable Falstaff in HENRY IV, Pt. 1.
The only misfire I ever saw at the Pearl was a dreadful production of MAJOR BARBARA wherein the director, David Staller, rearranged Shaw’s text, used double casting which made no sense and staged the play on a terrible black unit set, which killed the comedy. One of their best productions was of O’Neill’s A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN, directed by then Artistic Director JT Sullivan, which was as good or better than the other productions of the play I have seen, with the exception of the Jose Quintero production at the late lamented Morosco Theatre in 1973, which starred Jason Roberts, Colleen Dewhurst and Ed Flanders, which I saw on Opening Night and which established the reputation of a play which had been consigned to the dustbin of theatre history.
At the end, the Pearl had jettisoned their acting company, which made them not really the Pearl anymore, their last production being a dramatization of VANITY FAIR, using none of the Pearl actors, written by and starring Kate Hamill, which was a fine production but, well, not really the Pearl.
New York City is new play crazy – which is great – but I shall miss the Pearl’s dedication to old plays.
The demise of the Pearl got me thinking about the other theatre companies which I used to attend regularly which are now gone, such as Circle Rep, the WPA, the Hudson Guild, the American Place Theatre, Jewish Rep, American Jewish Theatre and Circle in the Square, as well as of the Broadway and Off Broadway theatres which we have lost, such as the aforementioned Morosco, the Helen Hayes in W. 46th St., and Off Broadway theatres such as the Lambs Club Theatre, the Variety Arts, the Promenade and the Century Center.
The WPA was founded by Kyle Renick (a producer), Howard Ashman (a playwright) and Stuart White (a director) and specialized, as did Circle Rep, in American realism. Mostly, they did new plays, although I saw memorable productions there of Tennessee Williams’ VIEUX CARRÉ and a dramatization of Edith Wharton’s ETHAN FROME, by Owen and Daniel Davis, which was produced originally in 1936 and was a great success for Ruth Gordon and Raymond Massey and many fine performances by the likes of Jay O. Sanders and Dann Florek. Their biggest hits were Tom Toper’s NUTS, directed Steve Zuckerman, which moved to Broadway and then became a successful film starring Barbara Streisand and Richard Dreyfus, Robert Harling’s STEAL MAGNOLIAS (also a hit film), Larry King’s THE NIGHT HANK WILLIAMS DIED, Kevin Wade’s KEY EXCHANGE and, of course, Ashman and Menken’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, which started at their tiny theatre in 5th Ave. at 18thSt. and moved to the Orpheum (where STOMP has been running for years), running for eight years before becoming a successful film starring Rick Moranis, Steve Martin and Ellen Greene, recreating her role as Audrey from the Off Broadway production.
After a few years at their original location in 5th Ave., the WPA moved to the Chelsea Playhouse, a brand-new theatre in W. 23rd St. at 10th Ave. By this time, Ashman and White were dead, lost to AIDS, but Renick kept it going until the building’s owners decided to tear it down and put luxury condos in its place. Since there weren’t any other viable Off Broadway spaces for not-for-profit companies (the Cherry Lane and the Theatre de Lys were commercial rental spaces at the time, and this was before the construction of the Theatre Row and New World Stages multiplexes) Renick decided to fold. I have fond memories of the many WPA productions I saw over the years, several of which were designed by their brilliant in-house set designer Edward (“Hawk”) Gianfrancesco, one of which was a play I placed there, Don Nigro’s GROTESQUE LOVESONGS. Hawk’s splendid set was a two-story house with a greenhouse attached. The buzz on this production was very good – until, that is, the Times sent their cabaret critic, Stephen Holden, who dismissed it with a syllogism: plays about Midwestern families are boring/ GROTESQUE LOVESONGS is about a Midwestern family/GROTESQUE LOVESONGS is boring – which killed any chance the play might have had to transfer.
Circle Rep was founded in the late ‘60s by Marshall W. Mason, Rob Thirkeld, Tanya Berezin and Lanford Wilson. Mason, the Artistic Director, was its driving force; Wilson, its resident playwright. They had an affiliated group of actors, such as Conchata Ferrell, Trish Hawkins, Judd Hirsch, Jonathan Hogan, Jeff Daniels and William Hurt, many of whom moved on to TV and film, but their “star” was Lanford Wilson, who came up with Mason in the off off Broadway scene in the 1960s, often working at Caffe Cino. They got themselves a loft on the Upper West Side, where they opened the play which was to establish their reputation, Wilson’s THE HOT L BALTIMORE, which transferred to Circle in the Square Downtown, in Bleecker Street, where it had a long run in the early 1970s. They then built a theatre in what had once been a garage in 7th Ave. South, just below Sheridan Square. It was here that they produced many plays by Lanford Wilson, including TALLEY’S FOLLY, which won the Pulitzer Prize, THE FIFTH OF JULY and BURN THIS – all of which moved to, and succeeded on, Broadway – and William Hoffman’s AS IS, which was the first play to deal with the AIDS crisis.
When Mason decided to move out to Los Angeles to work in film, sadly Circle Rep folded two or three years later, burdened by too much debt to keep going. Mason never got a film career going and wound up chairing the Theatre Dept. at Arizona State University. Trish Hawkins, the original Sally Tally in TALLY’S FOLLY and The Girl in THE HOT L BALTIMORE, ditched her acting career and joined Mason at ASU, where she taught for many years.
The Hudson Guild Theatre Co. performed in an auditorium in the community service center of what were basically low-income housing projects in W. 26th St. It was founded by playwright PJ Barry, who turned it over to Craig Anderson, who ran it for several years before moving out to Los Angeles to become a successful TV producer. For a few years, the Hudson Guild was an Off Broadway powerhouse. It was here that ON GOLDEN POND and the American premiere of DA started, both of which later had successful Broadway runs. They also did a political farce by Lee Kalcheim, WIN WITH WHEELER, which was directed by none other than George Abbott, over 100 years old at the time but still going strong. After Anderson’s departure, though, the company went slowly downhill, petering out several years ago. Now, it’s basically a community theatre.
Circle in the Square was the Granddaddy of the Off Broadway movement. Founded by Theodore Mann in 1951, in a small space in Sheridan Square, they hit the jackpot early on with an acclaimed production of a pretty much forgotten play by Tennessee Williams, SUMMER AND SMOKE, which made a star of its Alma Winemiller, Geraldine Page, and a few years later, an equally acclaimed production of another forgotten play, this one by Eugene O’Neill, called THE ICEMAN COMETH, which made a star of its Hickey, Jason Robards, Jr. In 1960, Mann relocated to a new space in Bleecker Street, a long, jutting stage with seating on three sides. In 1970 he relocated again, to a new space just below the ground floor of a skyscraper between W. 50th and W. 51stStreets, where he produced memorable star-driven revivals of classics such as UNCLE VANYA, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Nicole Williamson as Vanya, Julie Christie as Yelena, Barnard Hughes as Serebryakov and George C. Scott as Astrov. Lillian Gish played the nurse. This played before I got to New York so I didn’t see it. But I saw another fine production of UNCLE VANYA later there, with Tom Courtenay as Vanya. Scott was a brilliant Willy in DEATH OF A SALESMAN there. ONCE IN A LIFETIME, directed by Tom Moore, the first revival of this comedy classic since its original production (detailed memorably by Moss Hart in his classic autobiography, Act I) starred John Lithgow, Treat Williams and Deborah May. George S. Irving was hilarious as Glogauer, based on Samuel L. Goldwyn, and Max Wright equally hilarious as flustered, flabbergasted playwright Lawrence Vail, which the playwright and director George S. Kaufman had played in the original production. Another hit was a transfer from the Long Wharf Theatre of O’Neill’s AH, WILDERNESS, directed by Long Wharf’s Artistic Director, with a wonderful cast which included Richard Backus, Swoozie Kurtz, William Swetland and Theresa Wright. Occasionally, they did a new play or musical, such as Michael Weller’s LOOSE ENDS, directed by Alan Schneider, starring Kevin Kline and Roxanne Hart, and a musical version of Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA starring Ann Crumb, directed rather ineptly by Mann himself. Sadly, the theatre company went bankrupt in 1997 and CITS is now a commercial rental house. While it has housed some memorable productions such as revivals of THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW and ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, I miss the good old days when Mann was running the show.
As is the way of the march of time the WPA, Circle Rep and Hudson Guild Theatres died out, but in their place have sprung numerous Off Broadway companies, many of which have done terrific productions; but I miss the old days when I could see a new play by Larry Ketron at the WPA, Wilson’s latest at Circle Rep and an Irish import by the likes of Hugh Leonard at the Hudson Guild.
The American Place Theatre was founded by Wynn Handman and The Rev. Sidney Lanier at St. Clement’s Church (Lanier was the Rector of St. Clement’s) in W. 46th St. in the mid-1960s and was, for a time, quite a cutting-edge company. This was before there was much off and off-off Broadway, so theatregoers in search of an alternative to Broadway had a place to go. Handman did poetic dramas, such as Robert Lowell’s THE OLD GLORY and William Alfred’s HOGAN’S GOAT, which featured a standout newcomer named Faye Dunaway, soon to be lost to Hollywood, and Sam Shepard’s monologue play KILLER’S HEAD, featuring another newcomer whose name was Richard Gere.
In the early 1970’s New York City started offering tax breaks to developers who included a theatre in their new skyscrapers – for tax purposes, they were granted ten free stories – which resulted in the Minskoff Theatre (in the Minskoff Building on the site of the old Hotel Astor), the Uris (now the Gershwin), Circle in the Square Uptown and an off Broadway theatre in the new J.P. Stevens building in W. 46th St. just off Avenue of the Americas. Handman moved his theatre into this new space, which was to lead to the American Place’s downfall. Plays which seemed oh-so cutting-edge in Hell’s Kitchen had trouble appealing to the Broadway critics, let alone attracting audiences to a theatre just off Times Square. The critics were often harsh in their assessments of their productions, I think because they expected a more mainstream experience in the Broadway theatre district. Walter Kerr (admittedly, a rather conservative critic) once referred to the American Place as “that continuing disaster area.” It got harder and harder for Handman to keep the theatre going, and eventually he downsized to a basement space way below street level (which is now known as the Roundabout Underground), finally folding altogether.
One of the most important and long-term legacies of the American Place, though, is the Women’s Project, founded by Handman’s Literary Manager, Julia Miles, with the support of the Ford Foundation, to do new plays by women, directed by women, at a time when both were exceedingly rare. She struck gold with her first production, a revue concocted by Julianne Boyd and Joan Micklin Silver, which opened in the basement space of the American Place and moved to the Village Gate (alas, another lost theatre) in Bleecker Street, where it ran about a year. This was A … MY NAME IS ALICE, a wonderful revue of songs and sketches about contemporary womanhood written by several prominent playwrights and composers, which Julia invited me to and which I got my boss at Samuel French to acquire, which went on to many productions across the country, as well as two sequels. Eventually, Ms. Miles began producing in the original Theatre Row theatres, before moving into Theatre Four in W. 55th St., subsequently the Julia Miles Theatre, where the Women’s Project was ensconced for several years before having to vacate the premises because the theatre was just too decrepit. A few years ago, the Women’s Project rebranded as the WP Theatre. Although it’s peripatetic again, it continues to be an important off Broadway theatre company.
American Jewish Theatre was founded by Stanley Brechner in the YMHA in the Upper East Side, then moved to the basement theatre in W. 26th St. below a supermarket, which was the original home of the Roundabout. Brechner did Israel Horovitz’s FOUNTAIN PEN TRILOGY in the Upper East Side space and, in W. 26th St., exemplary revivals of musicals such as MILK AND HONEY, RAGS and THE ROTHSCHILDS, as well as a new musical called A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE (another one I got Samuel French to acquire), which should have moved but didn’t, and fine new plays such as BORN GUILTY by Ari Roth (who later founded Theatre J in Washington, D.C., a Jewish Theatre founded by former American Place Theatre Literary Manager Martin Blank). At the end, Brechner could only afford to do projects which came with money attached (a disturbing off Broadway trend which I will discuss in another chapter), usually a guaranteed harbinger of the end, finally folding and absconding to Columbia with whatever money he had left (which, I suspect, was from subscriptions as well as grants).
For many years, there was a fine off Broadway theatre company, the Lambs Theatre Co., run by Carolyn Rossi Copeland, which operated out of the Lambs Club in W. 44th Street. They produced shows in the smaller of two spaces, on the ground floor, and rented out the larger one upstairs for commercial productions. Their biggest hit in the downstairs theatre was the musical SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN. I had seen this at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton during its last week and called Carolyn and asked her to see it, as generally she did shows with a religious slant and this one was about a gospel group, The Sanders Family Singers, performing at a Southern Baptist church, much to the chagrin of the more conservative members but enthusiastically supported by the pastor. Carolyn couldn’t make it out to the McCarter to see it there, but she invited the cast to perform it for her at the Lambs and optioned it on the spot. It had a long run there. The upstairs theatre was an exquisite space designed by Stanford White. Some of its memorable hits were James Sherman’s BEAU JEST, produced by Arthur Cantor and Carol Ostrow, who also produced Eileen Atkins in a one-woman show based on Virginia Woolf’s A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN. Tina Howe’s PAINTING CHURCHES, starring Marian Seldes in one of her most memorable performances, Donald Madden and Elizabeth McGovern, originally produced by Second Stage in one of the old Theatre Row Theatres, transferred there for a successful commercial run. Incredibly, this beautiful theatre was ripped out several years ago. What an outrage! The Lambs Theatre Co. was long gone by that time.
Jewish Rep was started by Ran Avni in a small space in the 14th St. YMHA, where it operated for several years before moving to Playhouse 91 in the YMHA on the Upper East Side (which doesn’t appear to be used for theatre anymore). I saw many memorable plays and musicals produced by Jewish Rep at the YMHA and at Playhouse 91, such as Susan Sandler’s CROSSING DELANCEY (another gem I landed for Samuel French), directed by Pamela Berlin, which became a successful film directed by Joan Micklin Silver starring Amy Irving and Peter Riegert, and the musical THEDA BARA AND THE FRONTIER RABBI, directed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, which deserved a commercial transfer but didn’t get it. Then, several years ago, Jewish Rep disappeared. I still don’t know what happened to it.
When I moved to New York in the summer of 1975 in search of a niche for myself in the theatre, there were several excellent off off Broadway theatre companies but few Off Broadway ones (by this time, Circle in the Square had moved uptown to the theatre district). The only one I can think of is Joe Papp’s Public Theater, which had opened in 1967 with the original production of HAIR. Soho Rep, Theatre at St. Clements, Manhattan Theatre Club and Playwrights Horizons were all off off Broadway then – hard to believe, but true. One of my favorite OOB companies was the Impossible Ragtime Theatre in W. 26th St. which was founded by Ted Story, Pam Mitchell and George Ferencz (who passed away recently). Ferenz directed a notable production of O’Neill’s THE HAIRY APE, featuring an inexperienced actor who had literally walked in off the street and asked to audition. His name was Brian Dennehy. Ted Story directed a play which I found in stacks and stacks of old scripts when Samuel French was moving out of their premises in W. 45th St., Sam Shepard’s ANGEL CITY, which as far as I can determine was the New York premiere. The IRT was a director’s theatre and I was accepted there as one of their resident directors. I was also the Literary Manager. Other directors included Steve Zuckerman, who went on to a successful directing career on the New York stage before moving out to the Left Coast, where he became a top TV director, and Mary B. Robinson, who went on to a successful career in regional theatre. I directed Brian Richard Mori’s DREAMS OF FLIGHT (FROM A BIRD IN A CAGE) there, which I had plucked out of Bill Talbot’s slush pile at Samuel French and which was published later by Dramatists Play Service, dedicated to me. In those days, actors in OOB productions weren’t paid anything. When Actor’s Equity forced the theatres to pay actors something based on their budgets Ted Story, pissed off, closed the theatre. It later became the home of Manhattan Class Company (now, MCC), which presented acclaimed productions of Alan Bowne’s BIERUT, which made a star of Marisa Tomei, Margaret Edson’s WIT, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and Tim Blake Nelson’s THE GREY ZONE, which established the career of its director, Doug Hughes. I don’t know what happened to the theatre space once MCC started producing in the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Christopher Street which, after Miss Lortel died, became a home for not-for-profit Off Broadway companies. There were commercial Off Broadway rental houses such as the venerable Cherry Lane Theatre in the West Village, the Promenade on the Upper West Side and Lucille Lortel’s Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel Theatre). Circle in the Square Downtown, in Bleecker Street, became a commercial house after Ted Mann relocated uptown. Angelina Fiordelisi, an actress who is married to Matt Williams (Executive Producer of “The Cosby Show” and creator of “Roseanne” and “Home Improvement”), bought the Cherry Lane, renovated it and produced plays there for a few years before making it a rental house, mostly for not-for-profit theatres such as Rattlestick and Primary Stages. Other Off Broadway theatres which are gone include the Douglas Fairbanks and the John Houseman in W. 42ndSt., torn down to make way for luxury condos, the Variety Arts in 3rdAvenue in the East Village and the Century in E. 15th Street off Union Square, which is now a Christian broadcast studio.
There were two small Broadway theatres which are gone now, the Playhouse in W. 48thStreet west of 9th Avenue and the Paramount, which is now where the Church of Scientology is based. One memorable production I saw at the Playhouse was Scottish playwright John Byrne’s THE SLAB BOYS, which starred Kevin Bacon and John Pankow. I saw a play at the Paramount (I have forgotten the title) which had a wonderful performance by a young actor who the producer, who also acted in the play, told me was about to hit it big in Hollywood. His name was Sean Penn.
The Westside Arts’ two theatres in W. 43rd Street, Theatre at St. Luke’s in W. 46th Street and the Actors Temple Theatre in W. 47th Street, run by the aforementioned Carol Ostrow, are basically the only stand-alone commercial Off Broadway Theatres left. There are three multiplexes each sharing a single box office: New World Stages, which has five theatres, the Theatre Row multiplex, which were constructed after the original five stand-alone theatres on the block were torn down. and the Signature Center further west. New World Stages, an architectural monstrosity, houses commercial productions and the Theatre Row Multiplex mostly houses not-for-profit Off Broadway companies such as the Keen Company and the Mint. Another multiplex, the exemplary 59E59, with three theatres, houses imports and, occasionally, Off Broadway theatre companies. Founded by Elysabeth Kleinhans, who ran it for many years, it’s now run by Val Day, a former colleague of mine at Samuel French who went on the become a top playwright’s and director’s agent at William Morris and, later, at ICM. Every summer, they present Brits Off Broadway, wonderful productions from England. I saw three plays there written and directed by the great and much-underrated English playwright Alan Ayckbourn. Primary Stages was there for several years before moving downtown to the Cherry Lane.
As for Broadway theatres, the ones that we lost during my time in New York include the Morosco and the Bijou in W. 45th Street and the Helen Hayes in W. 46th St., torn down to make way for the Marriott Marquis Hotel and Theatre. Its developer, John Portman, got the city to declare the area a “blighted zone,” which got him tax breaks. Three Broadway Theatres were a “blighted zone?” The Morosco was where the modern American Theatre began, when Eugene O’Neil’s BEYOND THE HORIZON transferred there from the Provincetown Playhouse in MacDougall Street, another venerable OB theatre, which housed Charles Busch’s long-running hit, VAMPIRE LESBIANS OF SODOM. It’s still there, but no longer a functioning theatre. It was at the Morosco where I saw the Opening Night of Josè Quintero’s legendary production of A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN and Michael Cristofer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning THE SHADOW BOX. Joe Papp led protests against demolishing these theatres, to no avail. Every time I see something at the Marriott Marquis I try not to get pissed off.
Out with the old, in with the new, is the normal order of things, but I lament the loss of the old.