You may not notice, but the staff at New York Theatre Workshop is wearing identification badges at the tiny East Village playhouse these days. This may seem a small concession compared with the perks of being around rehearsals and performances of “Othello,” staged by Tony-winning director Sam Gold (“Fun Home”) and starring David Oyelowo as the Moor and Daniel Craig as Iago.
And yet, when I ask artistic director James Nicola to discuss any downsides of producing the fall’s highest profile event in his 199-seat theater, those badges — an obvious security necessity but contrary to the intimate spirit of the place — are the first thing he mentions.
Of course, most of you will not notice the badges because, face it, most of you will never get close to the inside of this Off-Broadway creative caldron during “Othello,” which begins previews Tuesday, Nov. 22, opens Dec. 12 and closes Jan. 18. (Single tickets sold out long ago, but there is a cancellation line two hours before curtain.)
Nor is he the only head of a respected nonprofit that, at this moment, is enjoying the advantages (despite a few downsides) of big-stars — most working for about $600 a week — in teeny-tiny theaters.
Earlier this week, Jason Sudeikis, favorite of “Saturday Night Live” and comedy movies, made his New York stage debut in “Dead Poets Society” at the 199-seat Classic Stage Company. Sutton Foster, Tony-winning golden girl of Broadway and delightfully offbeat TV, opens Nov. 20 in The New Group’s revival of “Sweet Charity” in the 222-seat Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
“Sweet Charity?” Really? Yes, we mean the sentimental 1966 musical-comedy about a good-hearted dance-for-hire girl in a Times Square dance hall. Neil Simon wrote the book, with music by Cy Coleman. No less a showman than Bob Fosse staged it on Broadway for Gwen Verdon and directed the 1969 movie with Shirley MacLaine.
And The New Group? Really, the ever-edgy New Group? Yes, Scott Elliott, artistic director, was approached by Foster and director Leigh Silverman, who collaborated with her in the wonderful “Violet” on Broadway in 2014. “I didn’t know the show ‘Sweet Charity’ very well,” recalls Elliott. “When Sutton and Leigh spoke with me about their compassionate and relevant vision for Charity, it felt like a no-brainer and a perfect fit.”
The vision is stripped down to a cast of 12, with a six-woman band. Elliott considers it an “emotionally intimate musical-theater character study of the best kind.” Says Foster, “I was interested in tackling this role in a new way. Doing it Off-Broadway and in a small space was something I had personally never done before, and taking the show out of proscenium and putting it mostly in the round sounded exciting and scary to me, and it immediately reframed the show in a new way.”
At Classic Stage Company, “Dead Poets Society” came first, then Sudeikis. John Doyle, the Tony-winning director of the radical “Sweeney Todd” revival and the Tony-nominated director of the current Broadway revival of “The Color Purple,” is beginning his first season as CSC’s artistic director.
Several years ago, he became aware of a new stage adaptation, written by Tom Schulman, who won the Oscar for the 1989 movie that memorably starred Robin Williams in an atypically serious role of an unconventional English professor. Since CSC has always specialized in classics with a modern perspective, Doyle chose to inaugurate his era with a new play about “how classical ideas can influence our whole lives.”
But who to play the teacher? In a recent phone interview, Doyle told me that he’s not “always comfortable” directing movie stars in plays. “But because of the Robin Williams precedent,” he said. “I knew I wanted to find somebody from the same genre, the same world . . . with a slight improvisational quality.”
His question about Sudeikis was “how much live theater had he done? I needed somebody who knew what it was to walk on the stage.” And here he was, an improv specialist who got his start at Second City in Chicago. “Jason is very interesting, very caring,” raves Doyle, “Like so many comics, he is very smart and can think on his feet.” The role did not “depend on a movie star,” but, rather, someone “who can tell a story in a theater that seats 199.”
Then, too, Doyle speculates that the actor “appreciates the fact that he doesn’t have the pressure of going straight up on Broadway with his name above the title.”
Daniel Craig had all that already — first co-starring with Hugh Jackman in “A Steady Rain” and again in Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal.” So here he is going in the opposite direction with “Othello,” co-starring with Oyelowo, best known here for his movie work in “The Butler” and “Selma,” but a theater-trained actor who began with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The actors and director Gold came to New York Theatre Workshop with the idea for “Othello.” Gold had his first theater job at this theater. According to Nicola, “although Sam has had many opportunities since he exploded into the world, he wanted to be back here.”
Nicola first saw Craig in Caryl Churchill’s “A Number” in London “at least 10 years ago. “We had a chat in a bar. He was a very interesting young theater actor who clearly had a future. Then all of a sudden, he is James Bond!”
Nicola suspects that star actors may be drawn to small theaters because, “the big Broadway environment hasn’t been as fulfilling as they had hoped. Maybe they question what it is to be a celebrity and whether that conflicts with the identity of a theater actor.”
Still, the celebrity can’t be avoided. “I just heard that someone’s offering the resale of a ticket on StubHub for $1,500,” Nicola says with exasperation, as if the entire 37-year mission of his theater were being challenged by the hot-ticket resale extremes of Broadway. “It’s perfectly legal,” he adds, sighing, “There’s no stopping it.”
This exclusivity — another obvious necessity — also bothers Nicola, whose company gave birth to “Rent,” “Once” and David Bowie’s “Lazarus,” as well as being the New York home for bold work by Caryl Churchill, Tony Kushner and director Ivo van Hove. With so few seats and such demand for this one, Nicola is “very, very concerned” about the appearance of being a private club.
Of course, such an A-list attention grabber helps sell ticket subscriptions. “This one sells out, which supports the next one,” says Nicola realistically.” I hope we aren’t getting dependent on this tactic, but given the state of funding . . . ”
He figures he’ll know the compromise has gone too far if he finds himself doing “Chekhov with the Kardashians.” Let’s assume we will all know before that.