Though the Public and Wolfe had suffered numerous financial and artistic setbacks in recent seasons, the announcement nonetheless came as something of a surprise. Since weathering the successive commercial failures of On the Town and The Wild Party, which were produced on Broadway during the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 seasons, respectively, and then shouldering the economic dip the cultural community endured following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Wolfe had seemed to bounce back—at least in the critics' eyes—with well-received shows such as Elaine Stritch at Liberty and Topdog/Underdog, as well as, to a certain extent, the recent Caroline, or Change.
Wolfe told the New York Times—where the story of his resignation first broke—that he wished to pursue a "more purely artistic life" and return to playwriting, without the distraction of myriad administrative duties. Wolfe and other representatives of the Public did not return phone calls asking for comment.
Wolfe is only the third person to run the esteemed Public Theater, which was founded by Joseph Papp and is seen as one of the city's most artistically progressive and inclusive theatrical institutions. Between Papp's decades-long reign and Wolfe's tenure came a brief and tumultuous two-year stint headed by Joanne Akalaitis. Akalaitis was reported to be Papp's personal choice to succeed him. However, the avant garde director's taste in plays was not shared by many critics and theatregoers, and she was removed in 1993 in favor of Wolfe, who had made a name for himself as both director and author of such productions as Jelly's Last Jam, Spunk, and The Colored Museum.
During his time at the Public, Wolfe nurtured the work of many minority writers, including future Pulitzer Prize winners such as Suzan Lori-Parks and Nilo Cruz. His other artistic relationships included close ones with Tony Kushner, Anna Deavere Smith, Savion Glover, Tonya Pinkins, and Michael John LaChiusa, all of whom saw their work produced at the Public. Supporters have applauded the diversity of his offerings, while detractors charged that Wolfe too often chose plays for their social and political messages, and not their inate literary quality.
During his decade at the helm, 13 Public productions were either produced directly on Broadway by the Public, were transferred by the Public from Off-Broadway to Broadway, or were transferred by other producers from the nonprofit's Lafayette Street headquarters to Broadway. Wolfe's woes arguably began when two of these, a revival of On the Town which began as a summer production in Central Park, and LaChiusa's new musical The Wild Party, ran a total of four months on Broadway. The flops reportedly depleted the Public's coffers to the tune of $11 million. Since then, various board members and staffers have departed, and rumors of Wolfe's imminent departure from the company have cropped up frequently.