Devoted to world premieres and New York premieres, the not-for-profit theatre company operates spaces both on Broadway (the Biltmore Theatre) and off (City Center's Stage I and II) and has a reputation as a place where writers are prized.
The path of both Proof and Doubt was a launch at MTC's Stage I Off-Broadway followed by a commercial move to Broadway. Doubt, subtitled a Parable, is currently playing the Walter Kerr Theatre (where Proof also landed), produced by MTC with producing partners.
MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow said one of her company's long-time goals has been to form and nurture relationships with playwrights. MTC's history with the young Dave Auburn was recent, while prolific Shanley and MTC are old pals.
"It's the culmination of many years of a relationship with a writer I respect enormously and I care about very deeply," an exhilarated Meadow told Playbill.com, hours after learning Shanley's play won the Pulitzer. "So it's very, very fulfilling. As you know, this is the seventh of John's plays that we've done."
For the record, MTC produced Shanley's Four Dogs and a Bone, Beggars in the House of Plenty, Psychopathia Sexualis, Italian American Reconciliation, Women of Manhattan and, most recently, the scathing divorce comedy, Where's My Money? The positive attention surrounding Doubt this year — including rave reviews and its future Tony Award probability — is especially good for MTC's profile following a hard-luck 2003-04 season when critics were sour about the programming on its Broadway stage.
How did MTC and Doubt meet? The same way many theatres find works — by sending in-house literary directors to readings, workshops and productions.
Meadow explained, "There was a reading done and our director of artistic development, Paige Evans, went to the reading and she came back and she said, 'I think you should read John's new play.' I read the play that night, and the next morning I called John and said I really wanted to do the play. That was last June, it was rather late. We had a change in what our plans were: We had an opening in our first slot at City Center [Stage I]."
The pieces — including the availability of director Doug Hughes — came together with little effort. "Sometimes things fall into place," Meadow said. "I wouldn't want people to think producing is quite this easy. The stars were definitely aligned on this one, in every way."
MTC is no stranger to the Pulitzer Prize. The company staged or co-produced the world or New York premieres of Pulitzer-winning plays Crimes of the Heart, The Piano Lesson and Proof, and such finalists as Sight Unseen and Yellowman.
The lean four-character Doubt is set in a Bronx Catholic school in 1964 where a nun (played by Cherry Jones) accuses a priest (Brían F. O'Byrne) of misconduct with the school's only black student. A young nun (Heather Goldenhersh) is used as a kind of battleground and represents the audience's conflicted feelings, while the boy's mother (Adriane Lenox) complicates the questions of trust and teaching that are raised throughout the 100-minute work.
"It's pure Shanley," Meadow said. "Very rich characters, thoughtful, thought-provoking, funny — this is a play that has engendered so much dialogue. I think all of his plays are very provocative, and provoke comment. He holds up mirrors for us, so the dialogue continues long after you've left the theatre."
Throughout the performance, audiences are trying to guess whether the priest is guilty of wrongdoing. "My husband saw it once at City Center and was there at the [Broadway] opening night and he said, 'I completely changed my mind about what happened,'" Meadow said. "But it's not just a whodunnit. In some way it taps into an awful lot of questions that we have now, and makes us have a good time while we're watching it."
Doubt playgoers, she observed, "are questioning and laughing and doing all those things you put on your brochure" in order to lure season subscribers.
Meadow said, "You put on your brochure, 'Come to the Manhattan Theatre Club! It's going to be an adventure! You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll think!' It's all of those things that you promise, that you try hard to deliver. This play does them all. It's thriling for the Manhattan Theatre Club."