Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre Company, which devotes whole seasons to a single author, is busily readying show number two in its current line-up devoted to plays by Arthur Miller. Miller's The American Clock opened the 1997-98 season, Oct. 19 and ran to mid-November. Next up, opening Jan. 11, will be two one-acts: I Can't Remember Anything and The Last Yankee. Previews began Dec. 30 for a run through Feb. 8.
Yankee, first staged at Ensemble Studio Theatre in 1991, looks at two couples brought together at a clinic for the chronically depressed. I Can't Remember Anything (1987), co-written by Joseph Chaikin (who directs both one-acts), shows two old friends attempting to fill in "the emotional blanks of what life used to be." Memory and language are strong themes in Chaikin's recent work, since the writer/director/actor has spent several years battling aphasia.
Six-time Obie winner Chaikin founded the infamous 60's experimental company, The Open Theatre and also founded the Other Theatre in the 70's. Chaikin directed Nacht und Traume in the Other Theatre's Three By Beckett in 1996. Also a playwright, Chaikin collaborated with Sam Shepard on 1991's The War In Heaven, which dealt with Chaikin's illness.
Asked why Signature chose Last Yankee and Remember, as opposed to more well-known works by Miller, Houghton said, "We didn't want to do the plays everybody knows. We wanted to add exposure to other works. With Yankee we knew we wanted to do one-acts, and Arthur thought it would fit together well with I Can't Remember."
Miller then added that he wanted to work with director Chaikin, which had initially surprised Houghton. "We asked Joe to go through Miller's one acts and come up with the ones he most wanted to direct on a double bill. Amazingly, he chose the same two plays." Starring in I Can't Remember Anything are Rebecca Schull (Fay on TV's "Wings"), Joseph Wiseman (Unfinished Stories, 1994's Slavs at NY Theatre Workshop). The Last Yankee will feature Kevin Conroy (Eastern Standard), Peter Maloney (Arcadia), Kate Myre and Shami Chaikin -- Joseph's real-life sister.
Designing both works are resident set designer E. David Cosier, Teresa Snider-Stein (costumes), Kevin Lawson (lighting) and David Van Tieghem (sound).
Miller was on hand for a Sept. 9 morning press conference at the recently constructed Signature space, 555 West 42nd St., as were artistic director Jim Houghton, architect Mitchell Kurtz and set designer E. David Cosier.
Amidst the clanging, whirring, banging and whizzing of workmen's tools, the three men (and, temporarily, Houghton's young son, Henry) took seats in the unfinished room, with invited press sitting opposite on wooden risers. Also onhand were cast members of the season's first show, The American Clock, beginning the first day of rehearsal at the Raw Space next door.
"We searched for four years," Houghton told the assembled, "and over 250 spaces for a home. We'd really wanted the Provincetown Playhouse but that fell through. Then we talked to Eric Krebs, who started doing renovation on this space a year ago. He asked if we were ready to continue the renovations and take over, so we did [for a 14-year lease]. Also helping was a $1.5 million capital campaign, $1 million of which was raised very quickly, thanks especially to the Laura Pels Foundation." 71 percent of the $1.5 million has now been raised, with a goal of Sept. 1988 set for the whole amount.
Architect Kurtz then pointed out the desired design for the space would pay particular attention to the size of the stage in relation to the 160 seats in the audience. "We want a lot of stage, a lot of art. It should be prominent and reach from your eyes to my eyes. It should feel like, `come on over, we're gonna read a play in my apartment tonight. That's the feel. Plus the notion of a library, a civic space. There will be several `walls of words' on display; words that will change every year.
"Insulation will also be important," added Kurtz, "so actors can use their full, dynamic range of voice." The space is 45' X 85' with an 22' grid height, equipped with air conditioning, wheelchair accessibility and concessions facility. Kurtz's other designs include those for New York Theatre Workshop, Playwrights Horizons and Arkansas Rep.
Closing the Signature season (March 10-April 19) will be an as-yet unannounced full-length play by Miller. Also on tap for the Miller retrospective will be a live broadcast, Feb. 23, of Miller's 1941 radio play, The Pussycat And The Expert Plumber Who Was A Man.
In his closing remarks to the press conference assembled, Miller stressed that his early, best-known works were created in a different atmosphere than exists on Broadway today. "The Group Theatre was so important to the process. People were engaged to create, and felt connected, to each other and to the same ideals. That doesn't happen overnight. Today we don't have `theatre' in America, we have `shows.' It's a crapshoot. Last time I was in a theatre they were pouring the concrete for the Mitzi Newhouse at Lincoln Center. But that, too, became commercial. I hope this place will have the same spiritual engagement of those early years."
Miller's other works include Death Of A Salesman, to receive a staging at NJ's Paper Mill Playhouse, Feb. 24-April 5, and A View From The Bridge, which just opened at Broadway's Roundabout Theatre, Nov. 25-Feb. 1, in a revival starring Anthony LaPaglia.
Founded in 1991, Signature Theatre Company spent its first six seasons focusing on the works of Lee Blessing, Romulus Linney, Edward Albee, Horton Foote, Adrienne Kennedy and Sam Shepard respectively. (One of the Foote plays premiered there, The Young Man From Atlanta, went on to receive the Pulitzer Prize and have a Broadway engagement.)
Three seasons ago, the company was housed at the (now vanished) 77-seat theatre at Kampo Cultural Center downtown. The last two seasons were at the Public Theatre space. Producer and owner of the West 42nd St. space, Krebs has stated, "Playwright John Ford Noonan said to me, `You know why I like Signature Theatre Company? -- They give working playwrights hope.'"
For memberships (starting at $90) and information on the Signature Theatre season call (212) 244-PLAY.
-- By David Lefkowitz