PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Dec. 13-19: P.S. I Left You

ICYMI   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Dec. 13-19: P.S. I Left You Downtown Manhattan theatre this week experienced—well, if not exactly an earthquake, then a disquieting tremor. Mark Russell, the artistic director of the prolific East Village presenting venue P.S. 122, and one of the few steady beacons of artistic leadership in the volatile Off-Off Broadway theatre scene, suddenly announced his resignation on Dec. 16. He will leave the institution he led for two decades in June 2004.

As a Downtown theatre producer told the New York Times, the effect of the news was as if Joseph Papp had died all over again. It is no exaggeration to say that, had Russell not created out of a former First Avenue school building a mecca for all that was new, daring and invigorating in avant garde theatre, the careers of several dozen stage artists, writers and companies would have turned out very differently. Some talents might never have found an audience at all. Names now familiar to American audiences (including Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian, John Leguizamo, Karen Finley, Danny Hoch, Eddie Izzard and Blue Man Group), as well as artists prized by critics and adventuresome theatregoers (Rinne Groff, Julianna Francis, Mac Wellman, Richard Maxwell, Mike Albo, Elevator Repair Service, Reno, Deb Margolin, The Right Size), either got their first big boost at P.S. 122, or found in it a welcoming home to nurture new material. During Russell's tenure, the two-theatre complex went from a favorite of The Village Voice and a magnet for Obie Awards to a necessary stop for New York Times critics. A booking there meant a major step up, accompanied by the implicit promise that an experimental artist might be on his or her way to a lifetime of work.

The future of the venue is an open question, but the theatre community may be right to worry. Russell's resignation followed the September arrival of new board president Don Guarnieri, a consultant to Internet companies. In an interview with the New York Times, Guarnieri called himself a "different kind of board president" and talked of attracting to P.S. 122 (which has always boasted a youthful audience) "a new generation of Internet-age audiences" and expanding the "P.S. 122 brand" into foreign markets. (Ah, corporate-speak, where "impact" and "grow" are active verbs.) Can a new logo and an espresso cafe be far behind?

P. Diddy—or, rather, Sean Combs—will make his Broadway debut this spring as Walter Lee (the Sidney Portier role) in a new Broadway revival of Lorraine Hasberry's A Raisin in the Sun, it was revealed Dec. 17. He's not the first pop star to take a stab at the legitimate stage. Many of us still harbor the painful memory of Madonna in Speed-the-Plow. He's not even the first rap star. In fact, it may have been the example of Mos Def, who impressed critics in Topdog/Underdog, which spurred Combs on. Still, the announcement came as a surprise. No other cast members have been announced, though—in what would surely be the odd couple matching of the season—the very serious and Tony-laden Audra McDonald is reportedly being sought to play Combs' wife Ruth. Previews start March 21 with an official opening scheduled for April 18.

Richard Dreyfuss is serious about the acting thing. On stage, that is. He started out with a few short appearances in rotating cast Off-Broadway pieces (The Exonerated, Trumbo), then did a longer regional run in All My Sons at the Westport Country Playhouse last summer. Beginning Feb. 20, he will star in a revival of Larry Gelbart's Sly Fox, which will tryout in Boston until March 7 and then move to Broadway a week later. From there, in November, he'll jump the Atlantic to star as Max in the London premiere of The Producers. If things continue this way, he may never leave the theatre.

Finally, who's the most powerful draw on Broadway? Hands down, it's Hugh Jackman of The Boy From Oz. When he goes on vacation, the producers don't recast a new star, or go with the understudy and brace for a hit at the box office. They just turn off the lights and lock the door. That's what will happen at the Imperial in February and March when Jackman leaves the Imperial for two brief vacations. It's enough to make a guy feel appreciated.

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