PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Feb. 7-13: Wolfe Packs

News   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Feb. 7-13: Wolfe Packs George C. Wolfe, who this week announced his resignation as producer of the Public Theater, ran the Off-Broadway nonprofit institution for 11 years. But in that time he inarguably managed to achieve something that it took Public founder Joseph Papp 37 years to accomplish: polarize opinion about his leadership.

Some news accounts, in reporting the story, chose to focus on Wolfe's track record over the last couple seasons, two of his best years—critically, artistically, if not financially—at the Public. During that time, Suzan Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog, Elaine Stritch's one-person show Elaine Stritch at Liberty, Richard Greenberg's Tony-winning play Take Me Out and Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's Caroline, or Change, all garnered white hot critical attention (most of it good) and transferred to Broadway, earning laurels galore along their ways. (Though the jury is still out on Caroline, it's hard to believe it won't win something.)

Other observers remembered On the Town and The Wild Party, Broadway disasters which many deemed ill-considered acts of hubris. Beyond opinion was that they lost the Public millions and cast it into monetary dire straits—exacerbated by Sept. 11—from which the company is only now recovering. As recently as a couple months ago, a prominent talent agent was quoted as saying he had never seen a nonprofit as broke as the Public.

Wolfe came to the producership with towering credentials. He had written and directed praised works such as The Colored Museum and scored directorial hits on Broadway with a musical, Jelly's Last Jam, and what became the most famous play of the 1990s, Angels in America. Additionally, his obvious affinity for texts which addressed American culture in all its facets and diversity fit perfectly with the inclusive vision Papp created for the Public.

However, Wolfe's artistic record became more spotty as he evolved from a purely artistic into an artistic-administrative force. For every Bring in 'da Noise/Bring in 'da Funk, which electrified audiences with its originality and verve, there was a Radiant Baby which didn't live up to promise; for every new voice discovered, such as Stop/Kiss's Diana Son, there was a voice perhaps better left unheard, such as Kit Marlowe's David Grimm. Wolfe assiduously nurtured the careers of socially-minded minority playwrights like Suzan-Lori Parks and Nilo Cruz, though many observers wondered—even after each won a Pulitzer Prize—whether it was the writers' intentions or actual creations that won Wolfe's devotion. Liev Schreiber emerged as New York's most accomplished Shakespearean actor through a series of Public appearances, but almost always while surrounded by avant garde productions critics found ludicrous.

One thing no one denied was that Wolfe—unlike his short-lived predecessor Joanna Akalaitis—lent the theatre a distinct aesthetic and political identity. Every in-house and Central Park production—for better or worse—felt like something that had been selected—and also (even when the program information disputed the notion) directed—by the hand of George C. Wolfe. The building rang with his forceful, often noisy societal and artistic ideas. If the Public's search committee is looking for a personality as strong and overwhelming as his, they'll have their work cut out for them. Peter Meineck, the artistic director of the Off-Broadway Aquila Theatre Company, and Jeremy McCarter, the theatre critic for the New York Sun, didn't play nice this week. Meineck barred McCarter from Aquila's production of Agamemnon, saying Sun reviews have proved the critic vindictive, underhanded and unethical in regard to Aquila fare. If anyone needed proof that the news week had been a slow one, it came when the brouhaha made the theatre columns in both the Times and the Post.

However the silly mess plays out, it's clear Meineck has not read his theatre history books. In such feuds, the result is almost always the same: the barring producer ends up looking petty and foolish, and the critic finds his or her reputation burnished. When the Shuberts threw Alexander Woollcott out of their theatres following a mildly negative review, the acerbic writer comically complained of "basking in the fierce white light that beats upon the thrown." He ended up back in the Shubert houses and armed with a byline—the first ever given a New York Times critic. Some years later, the Shubert overreacted again, shutting its doors to columnist Walter Winchell. Winchell didn't mind; he merely quipped that if he couldn't go to the Shubert openings, he'd wait three days and go to their closings. Winchell reaped endless publicity and sympathy because of the ban, which finally ended when Al Jolson refused to open his Shubert-housed show The Wonder Bar unless Winchell was invited. And then there are the innumerable attempts to end the employment of John Simon, none of which has extracted him from his long-held perch as critic of New York magazine.

Perhaps the only time the producer came off looking better than the critic was in 1966, when David Merrick, angry at the New York Times' new policy of reviewing final previews instead of opening nights, canceled a performance of Philadelphia, Here I Come! rather than let Times critic Stanley Kauffmann in. Merrick said the electric power had given out. The Times pointed to the lights burning in the lobby. Merrick retorted a "rat" had gotten in the generator. The producer still looked childish, but he also amused the community with his outlandish behavior, as well as devilish sense of humor—something rare in showmen when they're busy fuming about bad reviews.