59E59 Theaters bring excitement uptown

Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins star in Samuel

Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins star in Samuel Beckett's "All That Fall," at 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan, Nov. 5-Dec. 8, 2013. (Credit: Tristram Kenton)

What are two of the most glorious master- actors of the English-speaking world doing in a 196-seat playhouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side, a theatrical wasteland better known for high-end artifacts than the dramatic arts?

If you answer that Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon are being riveting in "All That Fall," a 75-minute gem from the prime of Samuel Beckett, well, clearly you have been paying attention.

If this is news to you, however, all is forgiven. Although 59E59 Theaters have been presenting a nonstop mix of plays in short runs for almost a decade, it is still possible to walk right by the sleek, narrow, modern building with its three small theaters (and theater bar) between Park and Madison avenues. Hiding in plain sight, however, they are getting harder to ignore every day.

I've been looking for an excuse to investigate this extremely productive and equally unorthodox operation for a while. Excuses don't come better than this little-known Beckett, written as a radio play and first broadcast by the BBC in 1957. Beckett, who died at 83 in 1989, wouldn't even let Ingmar Bergman direct it as a play or Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright make it into a movie. Plain readings eventually were allowed.

Last year, guardians of the estate wisely gave permission for this production, semi-staged with squeaky-dry precision and Beckett's pitch-dark miserable hilarity by Trevor Nunn in a welcome return from his years of mega-musical excess. The production first opened in a tiny London theater, then sold out in the smallest theater on the West End.

So we return to our original question. What is this high-profile event doing under the radar on the wrong side of Central Park -- that is, nowhere near Broadway -- through Dec. 8?

"They wanted to do it somewhere intimate," explains Peter Tear, executive producer of the complex owned by artistic director Elysabeth Kleinhans. He says he isn't entirely sure why they chose this theater, but he admits their little New York secret has quite a reputation in London.

As well it might. Every spring, Kleinhans and Tear present an ambitious Brits' Off-Broadway Festival. They also have an annual East to Edinburgh Festival that showcases American productions on their way to the Edinburgh Fringe, the legendary Scottish festival where the pair scouts between 50 and 60 shows a year. Also, according to Tear, Alan Ayckbourn now considers their theater his New York home. They're planning a four-play Ayckbourn festival for the British playwright's 75th birthday next year.

In 2010, Tear, who was born in Scotland, made Queen Elizabeth's honors list for bringing British plays to New York. But he hastens to explain that the bulk of the 59E59's shows are American -- often by new artists and companies from around the country. "Sometimes we do strange stuff," he tells me with an engaging sort of glee. "Some things, honestly, most other people may not even bother doing. We try to fill in the bits other people don't do."

Such unbridled independence really is unknown, at least in New York theater, and Tear says there is no business model for what they do. Here's how it works: The whole nonprofit operation runs on the income from the endowment that Kleinhans, a lawyer, created from property left by her mother, big-time real estate investor Sarah Korein. Tear demurs when asked the size of the endowment, but says, "Do the math. What we do takes a lot of money."

The building was constructed from a small parcel of the former Delmonico Hotel when Kleinhans' family sold it to Donald Trump. The small theaters include one that seats between 50 and 70 and another with a 98-seat capacity.

"This whole thing is her vision," says Tear. "It's her baby. Elysabeth imagined it working like a movie house, where people used to come over to see what's on. And that's what has happened." They have 2,000-2,500 members, who pay a $59.59 membership fee and get 30 percent off their tickets and discounts at the pre- and post-theater bar. "It is becoming a bit of a club now," he says happily. "The environment is comfortable. It is possible to be businesslike at the same time you're being nice." The two consider themselves presenters, not producers. But they are curators who carefully pick and choose as they please.

As I understand it, the producing organizations -- all nonprofit -- pay to bring in their shows. The theater offers moderately priced rentals, a fee that includes press, marketing, box-office staff and ushers. "Crudely speaking," Tear jokes, "we take care of putting bums on seats." All box-office income goes back to the visiting companies.

The theater presents a startling 40 shows a year, a number that will undoubtedly grow when 59E59 takes back the largest theater full-time from Primary Stages, its longtime tenant. All are short runs, which means that openings tumble out with no chance of being extended and little time to grow word-of-mouth. Tear tells me that Actors Equity, the famously protective American union, allows the imports because they are part of festivals and the runs are limited. A successful show cannot transfer immediately, but has to go back to the United Kingdom and reapply for actors' visas.

What a shame, then, that "All That Fall," already a highlight of this bright season, can be seen by so few people. The rural playlet has a seismic performance by Atkins as a decrepit but joyously miserable old woman on a hard road to pick up her blind husband (Gambon) from the train. Seven old-time radio mikes hang as she clumps along to wheezing sound effects and animal noises. Actors who play downbeat townsfolk appear from chairs on either side of the stage. When the woman quotes the King James Bible, "The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down," the suffering couple bursts out in uproarious laughter. Not for nothing did Beckett say that nothing is funnier than unhappiness.

Tear asks, then answers this important question. "Why do we do something? Because we like it." As in "All That Fall," "like" has the twinkle of a Beckett understatement.