If I ran a nonprofit theatre in New York City, during the past several months I imagine I'd been frequently (and wistfully) turning my gaze on Midtown's Manhattan Theatre Club and thinking, "When I grow up, I want to be just like them."
Lord knows, I wouldn't have thought such a thing a couple years ago, when the Off-Broadway powerhouse was stumbling through the public relations debacle that was Corpus Christi. And I wouldn't have been too envious even as recently as last winter, when Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party didn't exactly live up to expectations. But, since then, MTC has racked up hit after hit, its artistic touch seemingly as unfailing as King Midas'. It all began with The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, which proved to be Charles Busch's breakthrough play and featured a great comic performance by Linda Lavin. Then came Proof by the unknown David Auburn. The modest, likable drama became an even bigger critical hit and crowd-pleaser. Both plays transferred to Broadway with due speed, Allergist's Wife to the Ethel Barrymore and Proof to the Walter Kerr.
Then this fall began with the opening of A Class Act, the biographical musical about lyricist Ed Kleban, written and directed by and starring Lonny Price. Soon, it was announced that the show would jump to Broadway's Ambassador in February. Exactly one week after A Class Act opened, the curtain rose on Alan Ayckbourn's dark comedy, Comic Potential. And now—this is starting to get boring—there was talk that it, too, will have a commercial life beyond its Off-Broadway run (it has already extended). Amid all this buzz, MTC revealed plans for an $18 million rehabilitation and restoration of the historic Biltmore, the 75-year-old Broadway house. That way things are going, the company will need the space.
Their was some success for other people this week, notably playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis and director Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose searing drama Jesus Hopped the A Train opened to an encouraging review in the New York Times. The limited Off-Broadway run will play only six weeks, until Dec. 31, but look for life to go on for the play. The fortunes of Seussical were not as rosy. Despite the show's months of very high-profile backstage struggles and efforts to make good, critics didn't think too many positive thinks about the whimsical musical—once the great hope of the 2000-01 season.
There was new news about another gargantuan musical once scheduled to slay Broadway this season: John Kander and Fred Ebb's The Visit. Producers gave up on bringing the Friedrich Durrenmatt-inspired tuner to New York in 2000-2001 after an exhaustive and well-publicized search for a lead actress to replace the departed Angela Lansbury. The multiple Tony-winner dropped out of the show July 20, to be with her husband, who had recently undergone heart surgery. Now, the show is researching a very different road to Gotham, talking with various nonprofit theatres across the country, notably the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The powerhouse Windy City theatre has had a lot luck in transferring shows to New York recently (Death of a Salesman, A Moon for the Misbegotten). If such a production happens, it will bow sometime in 2001, with NYC still the ultimate goal. In the meantime, August Wilson's King Hedley II christened the Goodman's new two-theatre complex when it began performances in Chicago on Nov. 30. The play will open Dec. 11 and run through Jan. 13, 2001.
In Downtown Manhattan, it just got a lot harder for emerging actors, directors and playwrights to hone their craft. On Nov. 14, Todo Con Nada, strapped for cash and owing thousands in back rent, was finally evicted from its cramped, longtime quarters at 167 Ludlow St. In its 12 years of existence, Nada touched the careers of hundreds of young artists, hosting formative efforts by The Present Company, Target Margin Theatre, Elevator Repair Service, verse playwright Kirk Wood Bromley, playwright-screenwriter Todd Alcott, actor James Urbaniak, performance artist Deb Margolin and director Randall Curtis Rand, as well as giving birth to the first incarnation of The Donkey Show. The manner in which the space was run was not perfect (in recent years, many artists complained of not receiving the share of box office due to them), but Ludlow was always a good place to cut one's artistic teeth (at least once), and it now appears that the Off-Off-Broadway rite of passage called Nada has vanished forever from the face of the Earth—producer Aaron Beall's vows to get back in the space notwithstanding. New York theatre is the poorer for it.
That is not to say that Downtown theatre is dead. The theatrical likes of Stomp and Blue Man Group continue their assault on Broadway. Until recently, such shows—driven by a single gimmick, usually free of text, and seemingly unstoppable in their public appeal—have made their homes Off-Broadway. But with the advent of Riverdance—On Broadway this season, the tide seems to have turned and the stakes gotten higher. The latest dose of pure, caffeinated stage entertainment is Blast!, and it will set up shop at the Broadway Theatre in April. Blast! boasts 60 band-instrument-toting performers, aged 18 to 31. The music is complimented by traditional marching band flag and sabre corps, who fling their brightly colored banners and wooden rifles to the flies in choreographed routines. The musicians, too, get involved in the marching. The inclusion of Ravel's "Bolero" in the score notwithstanding, the show is bound to have family appeal. The cast is made up of band geeks, after all.
—By Robert Simonson