Talk to the meteorologists or the calendar makers and they're tell you the Labor Day weekend is nothing but a man-made temporal demarcation and has nothing to do with the change of seasons. Of course, they're talking about nature's seasons, as in summer and fall. But, the country's cultural citizens -- the purveyors and consumers of art -- mean something else when they say "the new season," and for them a new era most definitely commences after Labor Day.
A casual look at theatres, both in New York and the regions, during the first full week of September, brings evidence of an art form beginning its annual rebirth. Starting in New York, the revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man begins previews at the Virginia Theatre on Sept. 5. Off-Broadway, Marian Seldes and Brain Murray head a New England brood in the world premiere of Theresa Rebeck's The Butterfly Collection, opening the new season of Playwrights Horizons Sept. 8. Across the East River, Ralph Fiennes does double duty as the title characters in both Richard II and Coriolanus at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The Almeida Theatre Company productions begin Sept. 6.
Heading down the Old Post Road to Princeton, NJ, the McCarter Theatre opens its doors to Chicago auteur Mary Zimmerman, who will stage her take on Homer's classic, The Odyssey, beginning Sept. 12. Fellow New Jersey theatre, the Paper Mill Playhouse, meanwhile, hands a classic role to a classic Broadway star, as Chita Rivera begins her turn as Anything Goes' Reno Sweeney Sept. 6.
Journeying south, the Bard's Timon of Athens inaugurated the new season Aug. 29 at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. Further beyond the Mason-Dixon line, Altanta's Alliance Theatre leads its 2000-2001 season with a new Debbie Allen musical entitled Soul Possessed.
In Chicago, Sept. 6 will bring the Windy City debut of Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love at the Court Theatre. Paxton Whitehead will play the lead role of poet A.E. Housman. California, meanwhile, is bursting with new productions. Playwright Richard Greenberg premieres his new Everett Beekin -- as he has premiered many a new play -- at South Coast Repertory, starting Sept. 1. In Los Angeles, the Tiffany Theatre is host to Colleen Dodson-Baker's Detachments, which stars Glenne Headly and Laraine Newman. Performances begin Sept. 9. In San Francisco, John Glover opens Sept. 7 as, of all people, Hans Christian Andersen, in the American Conservatory Theatre's stage version of the Frank Loesser-scored film. Finally, up in Seattle, composer Philip Glass and avant-garde director JoAnne Akalaitis (once husband and wife), take a look as Franz Kafka's In the Penal Colony, courtesy of landlord, A Contemporary Theatre.
But before we bid adieu to the days of summer, let's take a look at the season's track record. Any observer of New York theatre will tell you 2000 has been one of the quietest, nearly stultifyingly dull summers in memory. Little happened, and what did was not, shall we say, terribly prepossessing. In Central Park, Brian Kulick's A Winter's Tale met with some success, while Barry Edelstein's Julius Caesar was less hailed. On Off-Broadway's commercial stages, meanwhile, it was often eye-averting time. Bill C. Davis' earnest gay marriage drama Avow closed at the Century Center after 29 performances. The political comedy High Infidelity, at the Promenade Theatre, put off the inevitable by postponing its opening date for weeks on end. The John Dooley comedy finally did bow, on Aug. 23, and, despite the presence of star Morgan Fairchild, soon after posted a early closing notice of Sept. 3. Down at the Minetta Lane Theatre, meanwhile, a new outfit called Back to Back Productions -- a theatrical partnership formed by a group of "veteran theatregoers" -- opened something called imPERFECT CHEMISTRY (or however you spell the damn thing) on Aug. 24. The new musical concerns issues of science vs. ethics, good vs. evil and big business vs. "big hair." Reviews were not rosy, but the show soldiers on for now, despite the fact that Anne Meara's new play, Down the Garden Paths, is knocking at the stage door.
So, where there any hits this summer? Well, yes, one: The Crumple Zone at Off-Broadway's Rattlestick Theatre, which has extended thrice, most recently to Oct. 29, and may jump to an open run at another house. Some might argue that this standard-issue gay comedy wasn't much better crafted than the above works. But those other ventures didn't have in their casts the comic tornado that is Mario Cantone, the comic/actor who nearly breaks his neck every night whipping Buddy Thomas' play into a comic whirlwind. Now, there is a workhorse who can well pat himself on the back come Labor Day.