GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN — Theatre Companies

At the end of the 2016-2017 season, the sad news came that the Pearl Theatre Co., a long 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 them 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, as the author intended it to be staged.

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 in W. 42nd St.

What was also 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 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 several other productions of the play I have seen, with the exception of the Jose Quintero production at the late lamented Morosco Theatre, which starred Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst and Ed Flanders, which established the reputation of a play which had been consigned to the dust bin of American 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, American Jewish Theatre and Jewish Rep, 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 Variety Arts, the Promenade and the Century Center. I will be telling about these lost commercial theatres in another chapter.

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’ A LOVELY SUNDAY FOR CREVE COEUR 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. Their biggest hits were Tom Toper’s NUTS, 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. 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. 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 ran for four or five years 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.

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. After Anderson’s departure, though, the company went slowly downhill, petering out several years ago. Now, it’s basically a community theatre.

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, Lanford’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, 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 KILLER’S HEAD, featuring another newcomer, named Richard Gere.

In the early 1970’s New York City started offering tax breaks to developers who included a theatre in their new skyscraper – for tax purposes, they got ten free stories – which resulted in the Minskoff Theatre (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 prove the American Place’s downfall. Plays which seemed oh-so cutting edge way to the west now had trouble attracting audiences to a theatre just off Times Square, and 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 consisting of songs about contemporary womanhood, which opened in the basement space 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, which I got my boss at Samuel French to acquire and which went on to many productions across the country, as well as two sequels. When the American Place folded, 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. The Women’s Project continues to be an important off Broadway theatre company.

American Jewish Theatre was founded by Stanley Brechner, who started out in a small theatre in the YMHA in the Upper East Side before moving to the basement theatre in W. 26th St. which was the original home of the Roundabout. Brechner did Israel Horovitz’ 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 is now running 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 (some of which, I suspect, was from subscriptions).

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 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 WHMA and at Playhouse 91, such as Susan Sandler’s CROSSING DELANCEY (another gem I landed for Samuel French), 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, about 10 years ago, Jewish Rep disappeared. I still don’t know what happened to it.

There have many companies which came and went during my life in New York City, such as the Impossible Ragtime Theatre and Theatre at St. Clements; but the ones I have told you about were the most significant. They are all sorely missed.