In part one we discussed The Pearl Co., then WPA and Circle Rep. In part three The Hudson Guild Theatre and Circle in the Square. In part 4 The American Place Theatre and The Women’s Project. The 5th installment included The Jewish Rep, The Lambs and American Jewish Theatre.
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 A 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. 42nd St., torn down to make way for luxury condos, the Variety Arts in 3rd Avenue 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. 48th Street 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 MisbegottenI 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.