The Syringa Tree, the Off-Broadway solo show about one white family's South African experience — and the world of its black extended family — will close June 2, a few months shy of it two-year anniversary at Off-Broadway's Playhouse 91.
Variety previously reported Anthony Clarvoe's Ctrl+Alt+Delete would be the next tenant in the Upper East Side venue at 316 E. 91st Street. Syringa Tree will have played a total of 586 performances and eight previews. The heartfelt 90-minute solo show, written and performed by Pamela Gien (and later starring the current Kate Blumberg) opened Sept. 14, 2000. It went on to win multiple awards including the Obie Award for the Best Play of the 2000-2001 season.
The work began in regional theatre, became a critical and word of-mouth sensation in Manhattan. Gien played the show earlier this year at the Royal National Theatre's Cottesloe Theatre in London. A TV production starring Gien (shot on the Playhouse 91 stage) began airing in May on the Trio cable network (visit triotv.com).
Larry Moss directs the tale of multiple generations. Matt Salinger produces and plans to launch at national tour in Palo Alto, CA in the fall.
The playing schedule for The Syringa Tree is 8 PM Tuesday-Saturday, 2 PM Saturday and 3 PM Sunday. For information, call (212) 307-4100 or visit syringatree.com. *
TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, CA, has announced the play for Oct. 9-Nov. 3. Syringa's producer, Matt Salinger, previously told Playbill On-Line a tour may begin in Palto Alto, and that he was working with Clear Channel Entertainment on other bookings, in not-for-profit and commercial venues.
The Syringa Tree, Gien's celebrated play about two families in apartheid South Africa, opened quietly in New York City Sept. 14, 2000, starring South African native Gien, playing 24 characters in the world of an English family in apartheid South Africa. The underdog show, told from the point of view of Elizabeth, a six-year-old child who doesn't yet understand the tensions and conflicts in the household shared with her parents, her brother and the beloved black nanny and her child, captured the hearts of its audiences from the beginning, even as cynics guessed the starless, 100-minute work would close after a few weeks.
Word-of-mouth (particularly from celebrities) and solid reviews fueled the box office, although the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York prompted a monthlong shutdown to allow New York theatregoers to get their equilibrium back. Salinger told Playbill On-Line in January 2002 he had not yet made any money on the show, but weekends were selling well.
Kate Blumberg, a South African native who has worked Off Broadway and is an administrator in the acting school of The Atlantic Theatre Company, took over the roles created by Gien Aug. 1, 2001.
After its New York debut, Gien won the 2001 Drama Desk Award in the category of Solo Performance, and a 2001 Obie Award for Best Play. She left the Off-Broadway hit July 31, 2001, to concentrate on a screenplay for the piece.
The work is a semi-autobiographical account of Gien's life. She first developed the story as a screenplay (which Salinger had read) and performed scenes from it in an acting workshop in the Los Angeles area. Director Larry Moss saw the potential for the scenes to be a one-woman work. Salinger agreed it could be a unique theatre experience. The play had its premiere at Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre in 1999.
The work is a labor of love of Salinger, who is known more as an independent film producer. He produced the video production of the play. It was filmed with three cameras over three days at Playhouse 91, starring Gien but without an audience. Salinger is also attached to the still-developing, fleshed-out feature-film screenplay of the story.
"I would like nothing better than to work on this for the rest of my years," Salinger told Playbill On-Line. "Since becoming a producer, I've produced a lot of things that were more about business or were more about learning how to produce. I've always been looking for something of extraordinary quality that was worth all the pain and time and nightmare phone calls — and I I finally found one. I'm not gonna let it go too quickly. I haven't made any money on this, and I need to. I'm also trying to learn from this. The lesson it's taught me is that I followed my heart and it's lead to all kinds of great things."
Salinger said there is still a perception by those who haven't seen the show that it's a political "South African play" that is more about message than entertainment. "I knew I was going to be battling that from the very beginning," Salinger said. "It has certainly lived by word of mouth."
The script of The Syringa Tree will be licensed through The Dramatists Play Service.
— By Kenneth Jones