Friday, June 16, 2017

Requiem for a Theater: Off-Broadway Loses a Pearl

Theater fans do not—or, at least, should not—live on Broadway musicals alone. Don’t get me wrong: the truly great Broadway musicals might call for a more diverse set of performance and stagecraft skills than any other theater genre.

'But the hottest new tickets can burn holes in the pockets. (A year after sweeping the Tonys, premium tickets for Hamilton are still running upwards of $800.) Moreover, fans are more likely to patronize shows that offer an escape from the real world rather than a reflection of it.

Such shows don’t often engage in the psychological complexity that actors love or that make audiences think long after they leave the theater. That type of work has become more and more the province of the smaller Off-Broadway venues that allow for avant-garde work, a revisit of a classic, or both.

"Is the theater really dead?" are among the “things that matter” in Simon and Garfunkel’s Sixties dissection of alienation and ennui, “Dangling Conversations.” The question was melodramatic back then and maybe even now. But there’s no doubt that the Off-Broadway scene that has provided an alternative theatrical experience for the last half-century is facing heightened challenges these days.

Or even outright danger, as suggested by last week’s announcement by the Pearl Theatre Company that it was shutting its doors.

“Pearl” was the right name for this repertory company that brought the best of classic theater Off-Broadway for 33 years. Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen, Gogol, Euripedes, Ionesco, and Williams are just a few of the giants produced on this stage. It was all brought to life by a group of largely unknown character actors who learned versatility by necessity. (With one conspicuous exception: I was not aware, until reading Michael Cooper’s New York Times article about the theater’s bankruptcy filing, that a very young David Hyde Pierce appeared in the troupe’s inaugural season.)

In a sense, it might have been a case of history repeating itself. The company’s longtime home, Theater 80 St. Marks in the East Village, had been a much-loved movie revival house until the advent of the VCR cut down one after another of these in the mid-to-late Eighties.

The VCR, it seems clear, was the leading edge of a host of new electronic and digital technologies that have transformed Americans’ viewing habits. You can get your entertainment anywhere these days, and live performances are no longer an imperative.

Nor was that the only long-term cultural trend endangering the Pearl’s commitment to classical repertory theater. The culture wars of the last quarter-century have not only seriously undercut federal support for the humanities, but have fostered the notion of theater, opera, classical music, and other performing arts as elitist. Nor have rising labor costs--hardly even a living wage to meet the cost of living in New York--helped.

The heaviest weight in the balance might have been the New York real estate juggernaut. When that industry was gasping for air, the Pearl and similar theatrical troupes could survive unmolested. 

But when the appetite for Manhattan residential, retail and hotel space first became healthy, then ravenous, the Pearl could hardly compete in the face of steeply rising rents.  In the last decade, it became the Flying Dutchman of theatrical troupes—moving first from its Village perch up to New York City Center Stage II in Midtown, then to what unfortunately turned out to be its last home, on 42nd Street. 

That should place in some perspective, I think, an admission by a Pearl spokesperson that the organization should have done more to diversify its audience. Perhaps. But when a nonprofit group signs a 20-year lease for a 160-seat space, then faces a minimum lease payment of $282,825 this year and $329,317 in 2020, it’s hard to see how it survives.

I think I may have seen a half dozen productions by the company over the last two decades. Though I enjoyed some more than others, none were bad or even mediocre. At this juncture, I am simply sorry I didn’t see more—not simply to increase my appreciation for theater as an art or even to enjoy a show (what’s wrong with that?), but simply to support the Pearl at a time when it really needed it.

Because, let’s face it, the arts run the risk right now of being victimized as much by the revival of the city’s real estate industry as it once was by its decline—maybe more so. Whatever his stated desire to encourage culture through his own personal largesse, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg promoted, in his 12 years at City Hall, an atmosphere in which the city’s real estate industry felt no compunction about damaging the arts and humanities. 

In December 2006, for instance, veteran retail broker and consultant Faith Hope Consolo explained to Gabby Warshawer of The Real Deal Magazine how easily theaters could be transformed into retail space. “Theaters make for great retail space because of their large floor plates, and since we have a trend right now of bigger and supposedly better, they’re very attractive,” Ms. Consolo said then. “Theaters also pay very, very little in rent, and owners and landlords realize they can get much more.”

The real estate industry’s boom at that time became a bubble—which, like similar manias, left damage in its wake. (See, for instance, my prior post about the needless demolition of the old Donnell Library branch of the New York Public Library system, a move dictated by a botched hotel development deal, leading to a reopened but far smaller space for the branch.)

I’m sure that economic viability has been an ongoing topic of theater administrators for a while now, and that thinking outside the box—something more than small casts assuming multiple roles (as in the Pearl’s final production, Vanity Fair, which I reviewed here)—has only accelerated following the Pearl’s collapse.

But such efforts ultimately will go nowhere without support from those who care about live theater. That involves attending shows, taking out season subscriptions, talking about shows with friends, writing about them, or spreading the word through social media.

The closing of the Pearl, then, has left me disappointed and bereft over the death of another theater at a time when we can ill afford another such loss. But it has also left me with a sense of gratitude to the Pearl actors and behind-the-scenes personnel who created such great work over time. So:

*Thank you to Shepard Sobel, for establishing the company in the 1980s and leading it for more than two decades.

*Thank you to his offstage partner, Joanna Camp, for her luminous presence in the title role of the first Pearl show I attended, Shaw’s Candida—and for convincing me that this was a place worth coming back to.

*Thank you to Robert Hock, for embodying Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest with all the magical imperious force that the role demanded.

*Thank you to Carolyn McCormick of Law and Order for a delightful guest turn with her stylish performance in S.N. Behrman’s unjustly neglected 1930s comedy of manners, Biography.

*Thank you to Erica Rolfsrud as the beguiling Polish aviatrix and physical-fitness buff Lina Szczepanowska in Shaw’s Misalliance.

*Thank you to Sean McNall, for fine performances in these last two plays, as well as the king who loses his throne but find his poet’s soul in Shakespeare’s Richard II.

*And thank you to Austin Pendleton, triple threat (starring, writing and acting) on stage, screen and TV, guest directing in what turned out to be the Pearl’s last season, bringing to late, glorious life Shelagh Delaney’s long-neglected 1958 drama A Taste of Honey, while expertly guiding the young Rebekah Brockman to what I hope will be a highly successful career.

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