Westchester's Phoenix Theatre was into its third play of the season, John Patrick Shanley's double-bill of one-acts, Missing/Kissing (now playing Off-Broadway), at the suburban NY theatre, when the decision was made Oct. 8 to cancel the rest of the season. Hearing the news, eight other theatres in the area -- Emelin (Mamaroneck), Fleetwood Stage (Mt. Vernon), Coyote (Chappaqua), Stamford Theatre Works (Stamford), Helen Hayes Performing Arts Center (Nyack), Purchase College Performing Arts Center (Purchase), Yorktown Performing Arts Theatre (Yorktown Heights), and Schoolhouse (Croton Falls)-- offered to absorb pre-paid subscribers and ticket-holders affected by Phoenix's closing -- quite helpful, since Phoenix isn't giving cash refunds to ticket holders.
The season opened on a down note with the poorly reviewed, Julie Harris starrer, Sonya. Richard Dresser's nightmarish satire of corporate mindsets followed in Below The Belt. Then Frank Loesser's first musical, Where's Charley, was cancelled at the last minute due to casting problems and was replaced with the 60's revue, Beehive, which suffered from both technical problems and audience apathy.
Then came Shanley's Missing/Kissing. Given an offer to mount the show Off-Broadway, the director/playwright tried to beg out of his Phoenix commitment, so they staged the show with another director at the helm. Unpaid backstage technicians walked out on a Thursday, the lead actor called in sick on Friday (artistic director Bram Lewis went on in his place), and by the weekend it was all over. (Millicent Martin in The Matchmaker was to have been the final show of the season.)
Founded by Bram Lewis in 1988 at the Masters School in nearby Dobbs Ferry, The Phoenix Theatre Company moved to Purchase, NY, in 1991. Productions there have included Morning's At Seven with Josef Sommer and Frances Sternhagen, The Trip To Bountiful with Ellen Burstyn, and a Liviu Ciulei-directed Hedda Gabler. Phoenix rising from the ashes is highly unlikely, though press representative Candi Adams (of Springer/Chicoine, which had been handling press for the theatre) told Playbill On-Line that Bram Lewis would probably do everything in his power to try and reopen the company for its tenth anniversary season. Phoenix had been renting its space at the Pepsico Theatre, a part of the Performing Arts Center complex at SUNY Purchase College. Bram Lewis put it very succinctly to Gannett Suburban Newspapers writer Jacques Le Sourd: "We're shutting down operations because there's no money." Phoenix's budget for the season had been $700,000, but with subscriptions down 900 from last year's high of 4,500, the theatre found itself over $100,000 in debt. Considering that the Phoenix owes the Performing Arts Center $120,000 in back rent and staff costs, they could find themselves a quarter of a million dollars in the hole by year's end.
Explaining the theatre's demise, a sad and subdued Bram Lewis told Playbill On-Line the problem stemmed from poor response to their direct mail campaign. "A normal return is 1 percent of solicitations. We got 0.04 percent. Also, we had out-standing pledges that never came in." Lewis sighed and said all operations have shut down and the theatre will likely never re-open. The space itself, however, will be put to artistic use. "The Center is run by a very perspicacious man named Christopher Beach, and he keeps it filled with ballet, circuses, dance -- it's certainly not the end of performances there."
"Any normal person would say it's all over," a sad and subdued Bram Lewis told Playbill On-Line, "but I don't know, I always think there's hope."
To his credit, Bram Lewis won't engage in finger-pointing. "If anyone's to blame, it's me," he told Le Sourd. "We have never, from the beginning, had enough money. We have always had debts, and we have managed to stay afloat. I feel like the Phoenix is my baby, and it's very hard, indeed, to watch your baby die before your very eyes."
The next baby in line for the throne is assumed to be Fleetwood Stage, which began its fourth season Oct. 18 with Michael Frayn's benefactors. Lewis Arlt, Fleetwood's producing director, told the New York Times' Alvin Klein he relied on memberships instead of subscriptions to entice audiences. The idea is to offer my freedom by allowing the patrons to use four pre-paid tickets for any shows they like, instead of being locked-in to a subscription schedule.
All the same, managing director Gene Minkow saw the Phoenix's demise as "a dire warning of what can happen to all of us -- and soon."
Joe Brancato, artistic director of Stony Brook's Penguin Repertory, said of the Phoenix's closing, "I feel like I need to come back and sit shiva." Brancato's annual budget with partner Andrew M. Horn is only $180,000, yet he, too, feels the budgetary pinch: "Even if any of us fill our houses, whether it's 100 or 600 or 800 seats, we still are going to be looking for that other part of the formula, which is not in existence any longer."
Westchester has had some poor luck with its higher-profile theatre groups. Westchester Repertory Theatre, New Globe, Main Street Theatre and Hal Prince's New Musicals series all have suffered premature closings. By contrast, Westchester's Broadway Theatre (formerly An Evening Dinner Theatre), continues to thrive, often using actors fresh from Broadway, 45 minutes to the south.
-- By David Lefkowitz