In the years that followed the demise of Circle Rep, the Off-Broadway theatre company which went under in 1996, it seemed as though the troupe's 27 years of hard work and frequent success had all come to naught. The organization's fall was little mourned and few artists seemed keen to take up the aesthetic mantle it had relinquished.
Recently, however, Circle Rep's legacy appears to have blossomed anew. Young companies are citing the late institution as their artistic model and playwright Lanford Wilson, the company's most famous son, is experiencing a modest career revival.
Wilson is currently the subject of a full-season tribute at Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre Company. Burn This, the 1987 one-time John Malkovich vehicle, was the first of four Wilson plays Signature will present during 2002-03. The production, starring Ed Norton and Catherine Keener, was proclaimed a rediscovery by the New York Times and has become Signature's biggest commercial success. New stars Elisabeth Shue and Peter Sarsgaard take over the lead roles Nov. 20, after a brief shut down to rehearse the production.
Another Wilson play, Book of Days, is now receiving its New York premiere at Signature's 42nd Street home—directed by the writer's longtime interpreter and Circle Rep co-founder, Marshall Mason—while the playwright's adaptation of Ibsen's Ghosts is running at Classic Stage Company.
Also playing Off-Broadway is Temporary Help by David Wiltse, the first offering of the new Revelation Theatre. Artistic director Leslie Smith regards Circle Rep as the artistic blueprint for his new venture. Indeed, dramatist Bill Hoffman, a name once associated with Circle, is now connected to Revelation. Another relatively new outfit to adopt Circle Rep's dedication to playwrights first and focus on a gentle, humane brand of realism is the Cape Cod Theatre Project of Falmouth, MA. CCTP was co-founded by Andrew Polk, an alumna of the famed Circle Rep Lab. Over CCTP's first eight seasons, Polk has produced staged readings of work by Paula Vogel, Ben Bettenbender and Jeff Daniels, artists who all once called Circle Rep home. This fall, the Cape Cod Theatre Project presented its readings in New York for the first time.
In addressing new works, actor-playwright Daniels, founder and executive director of the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Michigan, admits he took a page out of the book of Circle Rep, where he acted 1976-1981. Daniels told Playbill On-Line, "I built that place and tried to, in philosophy and principle, really try to emulate what I loved about Circle Rep. Circle Rep thought the playwright was king, and that's how we treat them here." Wilson's Book of Days and Rain Dance were commissioned for Purple Rose; Rain Dance is also on Signature's slate this season.
During its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, Circle Rep sent several plays to Broadway, including Wilson's The Hot l Baltimore, Talley's Folly, 5th of July and Angels Fall, Knock Knock by Jules Feiffer, Gemini by Albert Innaurato and As Is by Hoffman.
By the early '90s, however, the company was saddled with debt, a situation aggravated by the Broadway failure of Wilson's Redwood Curtain and a recession which dried up traditional sources of philanthropic monies. The theatre lost its Seventh Avenue space and co-founder and artistic director Tanya Berezin left, replaced by Austin Pendleton, a figure outside the company's core group. This resulted in the mass exodus of the old guard, including Mason and Hoffman. After producing first out the Circle in the Square space on Bleecker Street and then out of its sixth-floor lab, the Rep shuttered in 1996.
The fast fading of Circle Rep's legacy can be attributed to the fact that many of its signature artists grew less visible after their base disappeared. Wilson and Mason's careers went into eclipse. Berezin virtually retired from the scene. And playwrights like Innaurato, Hoffman, Mark Medoff (When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?) and Edward Moore (The Sea Horse) failed to match the success they achieved at Circle Rep.
There was also the fact that, as times grew cynical and ironic, writers too became more jaded, and the company's brand of lyrical realism fell out of favor.
Recent events would suggest the pendulum has swung back again.
—By Robert Simonson
(Robert Simonson is editor of Playbill On-Line. Playbill On-Line Notebook is an occasional column of thoughts by PBOL writers.)