It’s not the easiest thing in the world to get a new play produced, but at least there is a circuit of institutional theaters across the country that actively seek new scripts to fill out all or part of their regular season. And these theaters are carefully watched by commercial producers from Broadway and Hollywood eager to land the new Tennessee Williams or Lanford Wilson or even Beth Henley. What happens, though, to those “world premieres” or “commissioned works” after they’ve had their day in the sun at the new-play theaters? I can think of wonderful plays written in the last 10 years – John Guare’s
Landscape of the Body, Len Jenkin’s New
Jerusalem, George. W. S. Trow’s The Tennis Game – which, because they’re too strange or flawed or simply have too many characters, I don’t expect ever to see again. Unless, that is, Carole Rothman and Robyn Goodman decide to re-produce them.
In 1977, Rothman, a director, and Goodman, an actress, who have known each other for 10 years, started talking about opening their own theater. Goodman had recently helped produce a season of American plays in London, Rothman had directed at the Circle Rep and the Mark Taper Forum, and as Rothman says, “We both had this idea that plays were getting treated like fast food. No one was giving writers a chance to work on a play again. And usually if the play is a failure the writer wants to blame someone else – the actor was wrong, or the set, or the director. We decided our theater would give playwrights a chance to try again.” The two women spent a year planning, raising money, forming a board of directors, and scouting for space. They finally rented an attractive penthouse theater on West 73rd Street. Just about the last thing they acquired was a name so simple it took forever to think of it: the Second Stage.
A theater like this stands and falls on its taste, and the Second Stage’s is always interesting, if not infallible. I don’t understand the acclaim that has been heaped on Wendy Kesselman’s
My Sister in this House, a rewrite of Genet’s The Maids
without any sociopolitical perspective; much as I admire Michael Weller’s loose-ended portraits of a generation, his early plays hardly qualify as neglected gems, and the Second Stage has done two
(Split and Fishing). On the other hand, Rothman and Goodman resurrected Michael Dorn Moody’s
The Shortchanged Review, in which Vietnam and rock ‘n’ roll converged on a tasteful middle-class household for some unpredictable chemical reactions. They remounted William Finn’s
pre-March of the Falsettos opus In Trousers, a dense, infectious, and extremely ambitious song cycle about a married man who discovers he’s gay and says goodbye to the women in his life. The show introduced Finn’s subversive notion that, when it comes to sexual matters, we all act like adolescents. And most recently the Second Stage presented Susan Miller’s
Flux, which concerned a casually bisexual English professor schooled in the ‘60s who tries to stir up some excitement in the bright, sexy faces of her career-minded students only to discover the self-destructive potential of her invitation to chaos.
Such worthy scripts are hard enough to come by, but rarer still, given the
minuscule resources of Off-Off-Broadway, is the high level of production that has become a Second Stage trademark. The shows are exquisitely designed and usually look like they cost several times the amount they actually did. Most impressive of all is the formidable standard of acting found at the Second Stage. Memorable performances have been given by John Heard (who won an Obie), Brooke Adams, and Pam Blair in
Split, Jay O. Sanders and Alaina Reed in In
Trousers, Elizabeth McGovern in My Sister in the House, and Jean DeBaer, Kevin Bacon, and Claire Timony in
Flux, to name a few. It helps that Rothman and Goodman favor performance-oriented as opposed to literary scripts (Kesselman is a case in point), but they credit finding such first-rate actors to their indefatigable casting directors, Meg Simon and Fran Kumin. For the impossibly difficult 22-character role known as “The Historical Event” in Amlin Gray’s Vietnam play
How I Got That Story, they auditioned “every man who could walk,” Rothman recalls, “and the last person who came in on the last day we could possibly look at actors was Bob Gunton. He came straight from
Evita to the Second Stage, where he went through the worst tech rehearsal I’ve ever seen without complaining.” Gunton won an Obie for his spectacular performance, and the play, which also won the author an Obie, re-opened for an Off-Broadway run starring Gunton and Don Scardino under Rothman’s direction.
The Second Stage has had its share of growing pains. The co-
producers refer to their first production as a baptism by fire: the director quit, two actors walked out, and the writers called up and said he would kill them. They survived that production only to have their next show,
Split, closed down by Actors’ Equity in a now famous dispute between the union and playwrights over the Showcase Code, which was recently amicably settled – too late, of course, to benefit what could have been a substantial hit show. The biggest problem the theater faces at the moment would be amusing if it weren’t potentially debilitating: the landlord, perceiving the Second Stage as extremely successful, wants to jack up the rent considerably. “I think they figure if Meryl Streep comes to your opening night, you’ve struck it rich,” muses Rothman. In fact, a disproportionate share of the theater’s $150,000 annual budget goes toward rent, while productions are earmarked a measly seven to eight thousand apiece. They may have to relocate next season, but Goodman and Rothman, both Upper West Siders, would like to stay in the neighborhood, where there is so little theater. Besides, in their third year as producers, they feel they’re just hitting their stride.
How did what started as a Mickey-and-Judy adventure so quickly become one of the city’s most prestigious showcases? Well, for one thing, it didn’t start from scratch. Rothman, a tiny blonde who describes herself as a political conservative, is married to a doctor, and Goodman, a former activist who resembles the young Phyllis Newman, was married to the later Walter McGinn, a successful stage and film actor, so they had some financial security to begin with. On top of that, they had good advice. Barbara Hauptman, now program director for the Theater Development Fund, counseled them to “do everything at once” (find space, incorporate, etc.) rather than mount productions piecemeal. Joseph Papp and his wife, Gail Merrifield, have also offered a lot of guidance; in fact, the Second Stage is almost an annex of the Public (five of the 10 plays they will have produced by the end of the season originated under Papp’s auspices – next is a new play, Deborah Eisenberg’s
Pastorale, followed by David Mamet’s The Woods).
Maybe most important, though, is the practical experience that Rothman and Goodman as theater artists bring to their mission of rescuing plays from oblivion or unfinished first productions. Some plays have undergone vast changes at the Second Stage; while Michael Weller considers fiddling with two or three lines “major rewriting,”
How I Got That Story went from three acts to two, My Sister in This House from two acts to one. Bill Finn wrote five new songs for what he now considers the final version of
In Trousers. And Rothman’s repeated inquiry “What is the event in this play?” drove Susan Miller to write a new scene for
Flux that immediately gave the loosely structured script a dramatic – no, electrifying climax.
Becoming a producer was a major life-choice for both Rothman and Goodman, and they’re determined to hold out the same opportunity for self-expansion to playwrights and actors. For better or worse, taking things personally is the way they work. It’s interesting to watch them interact; people will tell you Carole has the business sense and Robyn the social grace, but Carole’s personal style is bubbly while Robyn’s is more earnest. When Goodman says she’s always looking for good political plays, I comment that the Second Stage has done a number of plays by women as well as a subset of plays with gay concerns. She hedges a bit; will people think she and Carole are dykes? “We’re interested in relationships, whether it’s a man or a woman or a
buffalo....” Carole cuts in and acknowledges that they have done two plays in a row that featured lesbian relationships and that she does keep an eye out for plays by women. Later, relating some hassle, she says, “We lose our objectivity sometimes because we get so emotionally involved” – blithely accepting the charge so often level at women in business then joking, “We’ve gotten better at hurting people’s feelings.”
Goodman reminds her, “We’ve never fired an actor.”
“If we were commercial producers,” Rothman muses, “there were probably a couple we might have.”
“Here we have such a commitment,” Goodman explains, “because they want to grow and we want to grow,” and they exchange a look that agrees: growing is what they’re all about.
Village Voice, March 9, 1982