Last season, Playwrights Horizons became the hottest theater in New York -- it hit the jackpot four times in a row with a formula of mounting good plays in meticulous productions that pleased critics and audiences enough to have long commercial runs. Chris Durang's scathing satire of Catholic Education,
Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You, and A. R. Gurney Jr.'s WASP panorama,
The Dining Room, are still running Off-Broadway. Geniuses, Jonathan Reynolds' savage comedy about the movie business, ran for several months on Theater Row, and the musical comedy/murder mystery
Herringbone, in which the dazzling David Rounds played all the roles, held down the Playwrights Horizons mainstage all last summer.
It would be tempting for any theater on such a roll to do whatever it takes to keep the string of successes coming -- buy up regional smashes, book movie stars, give away money. Instead, something else happened. After a slow autumn, Playwrights Horizons opened its season in November with Peter Parnell's
The Rise and Rise of Daniel Rocket, which closed abruptly because leading actor Tom Hulce had to leave to make the movie version of
Amadeus. After a long tormented winter, the theater co-produced (with the American Place) Ronald Ribman's new play
Buck, which closed abruptly because it stank. Meanwhile, William Finn's long-awaited follow-up to
March of the Falsettos, America Kicks Up Its Heels, went through three months of rehearsal and three different directors and played its four-week run without ever opening to the press. A new production of Albert Innaurato's one-act,
The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie, did open to good reviews and box office, but it had been a hit when it was first produced seven years ago. This stumbling and stalling would seem to indicate the end of Playwrights Horizons' winning streak --
Variety came right out and said so in its news item "Finn Musical Nix Crix." On the biz side of theater, who's hot and who's not depends exclusively on commercial success. Just ask Manhattan Theatre Club and the Hudson Guild, who have been there and back.
But any respectable theater has a somewhat different agenda, and in any but the crassest of terms Playwrights Horizons might be said to be doing exactly what any nonprofit theater should be doing after a succession of commercial triumphs: concentrating on the work. True,
Buck was a fiasco (it probably hurt PH less because it actually played at the American Place), but the problem with the Parnell play was just tough luck. Not opening the Finn show was wise -- although there was an abundance of good material and fine performances by Patti LuPone and Lenora Nemetz, the show was truly directionless, all hands and no head, so reviews might have squelched the possibilities of doing it right in the fall. And much as I distrust the play's sex-hatred, Innaurato's direction of
Benno Blimpie and Peter Evans's performance in the title role were both exquisite and illuminating. The moment when Evans stepped out of his fat suit made the Christian metaphor more pointed and poignant, made the play more (don't snigger) hopeful than the original version with James Coco in his inescapable girth.
And the season isn't over yet, either. Still to come are Christmas on Mars
by Harry Kondoleon (his PH debut), a two-act play about four people whose dreams become focused on an unborn baby, and
That's All, Folks, a comedy in verse about the end of the world by Mark O'Donnell, whose first play
Fables for Friends premiered there two years ago. Meanwhile, Stephen Sondheim is forsaking Broadway to collaborate with playwright-director James Lapine on a musical theater piece based on Seurat's painting
Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Jatte, with no intention of opening the workshop to the press. Throughout the season, for better or worse, the choice of productions has honored the theater's stated intention of nurturing the writers who call Playwrights Horizons home.
It's a fascinating bunch, too, one that seems to have its baby teeth firmly planted in the heart of the zeitgeist. Just as La Mama in the '60s attracted the wild and the ethnic, and the Public Theater in the '70s became a refuge for the earnest and the ambitious, Playwrights Horizons has sailed into the '80s with an emblematic assortment of worldly wise-crackers, the
well- schooled if not well-heeled: the urban articulate. This breed of writer comes in many shapes and sizes -- gay and straight, short and tall, Jewish and Catholic, all with a vengeance. But no one represents their shared sensibility better than Andre Bishop, the 34-year-old artistic director of Playwrights Horizons and the man who has steered the theater to its current state of getting-hot/cooling-down/pressing-on.
Bishop is the epitome of urban articulate. Harvard-educated, he has the resonant voice and the preternaturally clean-shaven good looks of an actor (which he used to be), as well as the soft-spoken demeanor of someone who gets along with everybody. You would never guess that such a mild-mannered person would have the power to single-handedly shape a theater to his personal taste and vision the way Bishop has in the last three years. But he's also painfully sensitive to the curse of success -- weeks later, he's still smarting over the
Variety jab about keeping critics out of Finn's show.
"There is a pressure to keep producing successes, and our 'hot streak' had barely started before suddenly it was over. All this makes me nervous," he said when we met in his office one rainy afternoon recently. "The difference between this year and last year is that last year no one would have given a damn whether Playwrights Horizons opened a play or not. Now we're much more in the spotlight. I don't want people to think we're something we're not. If they think we're gonna churn out hit after hit, we will always disappoint them. On the other hand, I'm grateful that anyone pays any attention at all because for so many years they didn't."
Playwrights Horizons was founded in 1971 by Robert Moss, an energetic young veteran of the APA Phoenix Repertory Company and the Albee-Barr Playwrights' Unit. First located at the West Side YWCA, PH was the first to venture onto what is now the clean-swept neon-lit Theater Row west of Ninth Avenue on 42nd Street, then a burned-out block of peepshows and massage parlors. Building a theater literally out of rubble,
Moss made PH a hotbed of activity, producing dozens of new plays in every conceivable style each year -- readings, workshops, productions as full as a shoestring budget allowed. No one got paid, reviews were scarce, admission was free. Early plays by Richard Nelson and Len Jenkin were seen at PH, and a number of commercial hits began there:
Vanities; Say Goodnight, Gracie; Gemini; Uncommon Women and Others; Table
Settings. Andre Bishop walked in one day and offered to sharpen pencils -- he became a playreader, then literary manager, eventually artistic director.
"A time came several years ago when we were in terrible shape financially, and we thought maybe we should just shake hands and say it's been an interesting 10 years and close," recalled Bishop. "And Bob, who wanted to move on, asked me, 'What would it take to keep you here?' I did not want to go on doing just a million productions of a million promising playwrights. That was exciting, but you outgrow that. I felt we had to get heavily into providing productions of excellence, which means limiting the amount of plays you do and concentrating on design and direction. and I realized that what would keep me here was the work of X number of writers I'd either known and worked with or had seen at other theaters. And I decided to ask them to come here and make this their home."
It was a series of friendships, rather than any formal talent search, that brought the PH core of writers together. They were all about the same age, many had been at Yale together, some knew Bishop or the others socially. The only formality involved was the photo session two years ago for a season brochure picturing Durang, Lapine, Finn, Innaurato, Wendy Wasserstein, Jonathan Reynolds, and Ted Tally in black turtlenecks. Talking to various members of this "artistic board," as they're called in the PH program, I got the feeling the official designation was less meaningful to the writers than to Bishop, who seems to take genuine satisfaction in creating a surrogate family environment for his friends who are playwrights, actors, directors, and designers.
Although they enjoy the camaraderie, the writers have diverse histories with Playwrights Horizons. Innaurato has debuted half a dozen plays there, while Durang has done only one,
Sister Mary, and that actually premiered at Ensemble Studio Theater. And they wary wildly in style and talent. Innaurato's viciousness is a far cry from Lapine's cuddlesome psychology, and Wasserstein and Tally have yet to achieve the startling originality of Durang and Finn. What they do have in common that's special -- along with PH associates Parnell, Kondoleon, and Gurney -- is a particularly contemporary comedic seriousness. They're good at shtick with an edge.
"I've always felt people didn't take Playwrights Horizons that seriously because we didn't do these weighty dramas," Bishop said. "I don't like a lot of what passes for 'serious drama' these days because they seem to me to be fake and artificial, compared to what was considered serious drama 20 or 30 years ago. Fake emotions, fake themes. They may be well-crafted and certainly well-meaning and occasionally moving, but they could be written by anyone. I don't see anything personal about the style of writing or vision or anything.
"What I'm attracted to is writers who have very idiosyncratic and distinctive voices. That is what the theater based on the spoken word should be. And I find writers who look at the world with a comic or satirical point of view to be more honest than the mainstream serious playwright -- and more appropriate to the world we live in today, or at least the city we live in. it's very hard to be serious and earnest given the horror around us.
"I was having lunch with someone today who was depressed and didn't know why, and he said, 'Last night I decided to read
Time and Newsweek. On the cover of one was cocaine, on the cover of the other was AIDS.' How do you deal with that? I find the world terrifying, and the only refuge I have is a somewhat ironic view of it. Therefore, I like that in writing."
The irony of Playwrights Horizons' current "hot" status (pace Variety) is that, while it is perceived as a major commercial producing organization, it is still a relatively small, categorically non-profit theater. Bishop reports with some astonishment that PH is the second largest theater in
New York and the seventh largest in the country in terms of total budget -- up from $650,000 last year to just under $4 million, including the costs and income of
Sister Mary and The Dining Room. The theater has done very well with those shows, thanks to a financial experiment that paid off handsomely: generous board members lent PH the capital so it could transfer the shows to commercial houses itself rather than simply selling them to outside producers.
Sister Mary only cost $25,000 to move to the Westside Arts Theater, whereas the producers of
Little Shop of Horrors spent $410,000 moving that show from the WPA to the Orpheum. Nonetheless, Playwrights Horizons has maintained these two outside shows and its regular producing schedule without expanding its facilities or its overworked administrative staff.
Even though its track record has earned the theater cushy foundation grants and assured it a steady following, Bishop is cautious about assuming a rosy future. He remembers when the wolf was at the door and figures it could be there again. "We're late bloomers in a way," he said. "I think Playwrights Horizons came into its own quite late in the game, and I'm glad it happened in our twelfth or thirteenth year rather than our fourth because we know a lot more now, and we can weather the good and the bad. I knew if we just stuck to our guns, our day would come. Hopefully, our day will not go," he added quickly, "because we're not going to change what we do."
Village Voice, 1983