The University and the Playhouse

The University and the Playhouse The future of the Provincetown Playhouse — a home of the early plays of Eugene O'Neill and a significant Off-Broadway site — is unclear.

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Ask a theatre historian or stage buff to name the most important architectural landmarks in American theatre history and they'll begin with the three dozen extant Broadway theatres, including the Lyceum, which at 105 years, is the oldest continually operating commercial house, and the New Amsterdam, where most of the Ziegfeld Follies were produced. Ford's Theater in Washington, DC, where John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln, will likely be mentioned. They might bring up the Players Club, the elegant townhouse found by actor Edwin Booth on Grammery Park as a meeting place for thespians. If they're very savvy, they will include Ten Chimneys, the carefully preserved estate of the Lunts in Genesee Depot, WI.

Without a doubt, however, they will cite the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village. Eugene O'Neill is widely viewed as one of the primary driving forces behind the creation of an intrinsically American theatre, and O'Neill got his start with the Provincetown Players, which began in Cape Cod and moved to Manhattan's Macdougal Street in 1916.

Those same theatre aficionados would probably be surprised to find out that 139 Macdougal, where the Provincetown Players moved after their first two seasons in New York, has never been declared a city landmark. New York University recalled this oversight to memory when, earlier this year, it announced a proposal to tear down the Provincetown Playhouse, along with the five-story building that surrounds it, to make way for construction of a slightly larger building.

The announcement took the theatre world and New York preservationists off guard, and inspired near instantaneous hue and cry. Much of this was driven or directed by Andrew Berman, the influential executive director of Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. (The New York Observer recently named him one of the 100 more powerful people in New York real estate.) "I absolutely was surprised," said Berman, whose job requires him to work and wrangle with NYU officials frequently. He said that in recent months NYU had entered into a series of commitments with the Greenwich Village community that tempered their many and ongoing development practices. "One of the key commitments they made to this process was to 'Prioritize reuse before new development,'" said Berman. " And they clearly had no intention of reusing this building. They wanted to raze it to the ground. They also made a commitment to support landmark designation of what's known as the South Village, of which the Provincetown Playhouse is a key element. They certainly know that the Playhouse is known as a revered historic site."

Leonard Jacobs, an alumnus of NYU and national theatre editor of the weekly Backstage, who also opposed the plan, said "It's my contention that the university has not made best efforts to find ways to reuse the building."

NYU is one of the largest landowners in New York City and is ever-expanding. It has stated that it hopes to collect six million square feet of new space in New York in the next quarter century. Thus, it is forever looking for new space for classrooms, offices and dormitories. University officials argued that the building at 133-139 was not structurally sound and couldn't support additional floors; they advocated a full demolition of the building as a preferred option. The proposed new building would contain 44,362 square feet, a significant increase over the existing 27,245 square feet, which include a 30-unit apartment building for law students and offices, as well as the playhouse, which NYU acquired in the 1980s.

Morris Adjmi, the architect of the proposed building, told the New York Times, "I would not be taking down a building that had any architectural merit. [The new design] looks more similar to what was there than when it was renovated in the 1940s."

If NYU was blindsided by the outcry that greeted its plan, Alicia D. Hurley, vice president for government affairs and community engagement at NYU, didn't let on. When asked whether the public's reaction to the proposal surprised her, she replied, "What reaction?" When pressed, she relented, "It wasn't surprising. There are certain people who are very good at generating e-mails and letters."

"Certain people" most certainly include Andrew Berman. Berman and NYU have butted heads before. In 2000, NYU announced plans to tear down a house where Edgar Allan Poe once lived on West Third Street, in order to build a new building for the law school. The university eventually retained just the façade of the Poe house. The school did roughly the same thing in 2006 after being criticized for wanting to build a dorm atop the remains of St. Ann's Church on 12th Street, which was built in 1847. It went ahead and built the dorm, keeping only the façade of St. Ann's. Both of these developments were opposed by Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and received with bitterness by the surrounding community.

"They are certainly the 800-pound gorilla of development and preservation issues in our neighborhood," said Berman. "A lot of our time is spent dealing with NYU-related issues."

"I believe John Sexton and Alicia Hurley have what is tantamount to an addiction to demolition," said Jacobs, mentioning the president of NYU. "The fact that they have treated the theatre community so condescendingly should worry anybody that concerns the Provincetown Playhouse to be an important pillar of the Off-Broadway movement."

The Provincetown Players first presented plays a couple doors down from the current site of the Playhouse. The first performance at its second home on Macdougal took place on November 22, 1918; it was a bill of one-act plays by Edna St. Vincent Millay, O'Neill, and Florence Kiper Frank. The second bill of the season was O'Neill's The Moon of the Carribees. O'Neill gave the company its most notable landmark productions, including the first stagings of Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape. But over the early years of the theatre's history many other artists of merit worked under its roof, included Edna Ferber, Djuna Barnes, Maxwell Bodenheim, future Theatre Guild founder Lawrence Langner and Theodore Dreiser, not to mention pivotal Playhouse founders George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell.

The Players disbanded in 1922, but a newly formed group continued to produce new American plays, including works by O'Neill such as All God's Chillun Got Wings, which starred Paul Robeson. In time, the Playhouse became a rental house, housing a wide assortment of entertainments. In 1960, it made history anew by hosting the double bill of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape and Edward Albee's The Zoo Story. The Playhouse later premiered plays by playwrights that included Lanford Wilson, David Mamet and John Guare. The theatre's longest running play was the five-year run of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (1985-1990) by Charles Busch.

In 1998, NYU gave the theatre a major refurbishment and it was taken out of circulation as a working commercial theatre.

As resistance grew to NYU's plan, the university made concessions similar to those it offered with the Poe House and St. Ann's: It would retain the façade of the Playhouse. Then it added some interior walls into the deal. Berman and his supporters, meanwhile, rejected NYU's claim that the building was not stable. "It's not falling apart," he said. "It's got apartments. It's got offices. These are all uses for which NYU has a need. They seem to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. There is so much ill will that will be generated by going forward with this plan, and it will add to their portfolio all of 17,000 square feet."

He also dismissed the university and the architect's argument that a 1940 renovation has rendered the Playhouse so unlike its original self that it was not worth saving, and that a brand new theatre called the Provincetown Playhouse was a more desirable alternative. "NYU has been a very bad caretaker of the theatre," Berman said, "and a lot of the original elements that were left over from the original were destroyed." (Jacobs pointed out that a plaster dome, built by Cook and fashioned after those used by European art theatres of the time, was destroyed in the 1990s under NYU's watch.) "But that doesn't mean that destroying the entire theatre and the entire building would now be an acceptable response. Our point is the original theatre is still here. The theatre that's there now is still the same theatre that's been there since 1918."

Though the fight over the Playhouse drew international attention throughout May, City Hall steadfastly kept out of the fray. "Bloomberg tends to stay out of such things," observed Jacobs of New York City's mayor. "The operating assumption is that Bloomberg will probably side with the university anyway." He then joked, "We should knock down the Statue of Liberty and put up condos; call it The Torch."

Just as Berman and Greenwich Village leaders were readying to face NYU at a May 28 Community Board meeting, the battleground shifted. The school came out with a revised plan that would have the new building built above and around the walls of the existing theatre, with the rest of the exisiting building taken down. The news was greeted with guarded optimism preservationists and theatre people.

Hurley said the alteration of the proposal was not executed in reaction to the wide protest to NYU's plan. "A protest letter just tells you 'Don't do anything,'" she said in reference to the negative tone of the opposition. Hurley said the university was more moved by construction conversations it had with small theatre-related groups, such as the O'Neill Center, which endeavored to point out in less heated terms the lasting significance of the Playhouse and why it should be saved. She also noted that NYU received more letters of protest for its plan to evict a Met supermarket from a building on Second Avenue than it did to its proposal regarding the Playhouse.

The May 28 meeting was long and emotional, according to accounts. Broadway and film actor John Leguizamo was on hand and spoke in favor of preserving the theatre. Berman said he wanted a written agreement from NYU that they would save the Playhouse. He also beseeched the university to restore Cook's plaster dome.

Meanwhile, the battle appears to be far from over. Shortly after NYU released its new plan, Berman released a statement, saying, "While this is clearly a step in the right direction and a victory for our efforts to prevent NYU from erasing New York's history, it leaves many unanswered questions and many issues not addressed… We believe that the remainder of the building, which at various times in its 160-year history served as home to the famous Liberal Club, Washington Square Bookstore, original Provincetown Playhouse, and the Provincetown Apartments, is historically significant as well, and should not be demolished, as NYU's still plans."

Berman indicated that Community Board 2 is inclined to support NYU's new plan, and the university is thought to be paying close attention to the board's recommendations. A board meeting is set for June 19.

The historic Provincetown Playhouse.
The historic Provincetown Playhouse.