Small venues offer big, ambitious theater
There was a time, not so long ago, when the value of a theatrical event was measured in dollars and tonnage. How heavy was that winding staircase in "Sunset Boulevard"? How many gazillions were spent to keep the actors flying around in "Spider-Man" from landing in the lap of a theatergoer? And really, how many hundreds of bucks are people willing to spend to see "The Book of Mormon"? Yes, really.
But look here. Not up there, down here. As we speak, two of the season's biggest -- at least in anticipation -- productions are in previews in two of the smallest -- as in teeny- tiniest -- Off-Broadway theaters.
I'm still not sure how this works economically, if it works that way at all. But "Passion," the 1994 Tony-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, will have its first New York revival at Classic Stage Company, the 199-seat theater in the East Village.
Meanwhile, a few blocks southwest at the 180-seat Cherry Lane Theatre, no less a theater royal than Vanessa Redgrave is playing the Polish great-aunt to an American played by Hollywood smarty Jesse Eisenberg in the world premiere of Eisenberg's three-character drama, "The Revisionist."
What is this sudden allure of the miniature? Are artists and their audiences craving up-close human intimacy in a big dehumanizing world? Or are these just a couple of flukes that happened to coincide in the same neighborhood?
'PASSION,' starring Melissa Errico, Judy Kuhn and Ryan Silverman
To Brian Kulick, artistic director of Classic Stage Company, the phenomenon pretty much walked in the door two years ago, during the acclaimed run of "Three Sisters," starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard. The company, a haven for what I think of as indie-Chekhov, had never done a musical. The audience sits on three sides facing the square stage. There is no orchestra pit.
But one night, Sondheim brought John Doyle to see the production. Doyle, Tony-winning director of Broadway's "Sweeney Todd" and "Company," both of which featured the actors playing their own instruments, remembers really liking the space, which reminded him of London's influential
Donmar Warehouse and the 216-seat Watermill, where he developed his actors-as-musicians style out of necessity. (It's a style he has begun to consider a "pigeonhole." Actors will not blow their own horns this time.)
The next day, Doyle's agent called Kulick. "It was a huge turning point in my life," Kulick half-joked in a recent phone interview. "I had always had to chase people like John Doyle." The director and Sondheim traded ideas for a musical that would feel right in a theater dedicated to classics and new work ("Venus in Fur") based on classics.
"Passion," according to Kulick, was the "magic word... a no brainer. It instantly made sense." Based on an 1869 Italian novel (and a 1981 film), the piece is basically a two-hour chamber opera about a plain, sickly woman whose obsessive love lures a handsome soldier away from a beautiful married woman.
"It's an intimate, classic story that doesn't have songs and dances for audiences to applaud. The language has stature... it's not televisual," Doyle explained, adding, "There will be a 10-piece orchestra playing for 200 people... There is nothing like that sense of being near the action."
Kulick has known for a while that his theater's vaulted wooden ceiling and brick walls made for fine acoustics. But he never envisioned that former office space could be made into a perfect pit. "There's a percussionist where my office used to be," he says with bemusement.
Classic Stage Company, a nonprofit theater, prefers not to share with us the cost of the production. We can safely assume that nobody is getting Broadway salaries. According to Kulick, most of the additional money raised from donors went to the musicians and "hauling the piano upstairs."
If successful, will the show move to a bigger space or even Broadway? "Who knows?" Doyle hedges, then adds, "The intimacy here is very attractive. Still, every single person working on the project must be mad. If we sat down and figured salaries on an hourly basis, we would see that we're all really paying to do this.
"But we all know what we are doing," he said with no small amount of awe. "We're doing a Sondheim show in New York."
He is too modest. For 17 years, the company has been encouraging new playwrights. The mission statement on its website quotes August Wilson: "If you want to support a writer, produce the first five plays he writes."
Eisenberg had been coming to the theater long before Hollywood came to him -- with roles in the films "The Squid and the Whale" and, especially, as Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network." But when he dropped off a script one day, Van Asselt said, " 'Look, Jesse. I'm happy to read this play. But anyone we take on as a writer has to really commit to writing.' He came back with a second play pretty quickly," Van Asselt told me in a recent phone interview. "Neither was finished, but clearly, he wanted to be thought of as a writer. We set a date about two years away."
One of those plays was his 2011 "Asuncion," a quick-witted comedy in which he and costar Justin Bartha1 "Asuncion," toyed with covert racism under the veneer of hyper-liberal buddy-boys. The other script was "The Revisionist," about an American who meets his distant relative in Poland. According to Van Asselt, Eisenberg wanted to perform in his debut as a playwright, but didn't intend to act in the second one.
When it came to casting the elderly aunt, the fellows dreamed up a little list of names. "Jesse sent the script to Vanessa Redgrave," he recalled with understandable incredulity. "You can do that if you're Jesse Eisenberg." She said, yes.
"She was such a long shot," he said. "But when Jesse got the chance to act with one of the great actors of our time, he wasn't going to turn it down."
Van Asselt made sure Redgrave understood the size of the theater. "There's nothing worse than having someone say yes and then getting here and going 'ohmygod.' But she knew the theater," he said, "She has even been there."
So these days, Van Asselt is "rejoicing" in her "work ethic. It's such a pleasure, so extraordinary. She arrived with the Polish accent and she works and works and works." He doesn't expect the play will extend, since he has the next one already scheduled for the space. He also thinks the actors have other commitments, though they might do a brief run in Los Angeles.
He does acknowledge, no surprise, that this improbable bonanza is "helping our fundraising. And it's really good for the other playwrights."
Both "Passion" and "The Revisionist" officially open on the same night, Feb. 28. This is the only stupid thing I've heard about either one.
"The Revisionist," Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St., through March 31; $85, 866-811-4111, rattlestick.org