Dec. 21, 2001-
Space and the Times
By By Bob Mondello and Trey Graham
It was the year the Greeks arrived, as did the Brits and Michael Kaiser, the American who turned the London arts scene on its head a few years back. Around Washington, theaters were being built and being shared, disasters were striking and being weathered, and playwrights were loving and being scandalized by the way local houses handled their work.
There were new personnel in high places, from Bo Derek (rumored to be one of the KenCen "10"presidential appointees to an expanded board of directors) to Ben Ali of Ben's Chili Bowl, who joined a freshly invigorated Lincoln Theatre board that's trying to get that historic U Street house out of its booking doldrums.
D.C. may no longer be Broadway's tryout town of choice, but that doesn't mean local audiences don't still see some shows before New Yorkers do. Besides the conventional pre-B'way run of August Wilson's King Hedley II, the comedy with music Blue, which broke records at Arena Stage, opened off-Broadway with much of the D.C. cast intact. Wonder of the World is currently at the Manhattan Theatre Club with Sarah Jessica Parker in what Woolly Mammoth audiences will think of as the Deb Gottesman role, and local playwright Heather McDonald's An Almost Holy Picture opens soon on Broadway with Kevin Bacon in the part that Jerry Whiddon essayed a few years back at Round House. A more recent Round House hit, Smell of the Kill, will open on Broadway in a few weeks, and Slam!, a smash for the Studio Theatre last year, is scheduled to arrive in Manhattan early in 2002. Studio also managed the unprecedented trick of opening Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love the same week the show premiered on Broadway.
Of course, Washington and New York shared other events this yeardreadful events, whose aftershocks are still being played out in the hospitality and entertainment fields. Broadway's difficulties made national headlines; Washington's were less well-publicized. Ask local theater folk how Sept. 11 affected them, and you get a variety of responses. Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theatre, which were both playing evenings of Greek tragedy when the terrorist attacks occurred, report only minor dips in attendance. They're heavily subscriber-based, though; smaller theaters seem harder hit.
Christopher Henley, who made a Cherry Red Productions debut to rave reviews on Sept. 7 as the title character in Killer Joe, says the show played to sparse houses for about three weeksand then, just as audiences had finally begun showing up again, the bombing started in Afghanistan. That pattern was repeated elsewhere: The Washington Stage Guild's Ann Norton figures her company's box office take will be down about 20 percent for the year ("lost income we'll never get back") and notes a new skittishness from patrons who were finally feeling safe in the 14th Street corridor. "Before, we were battling misconceptions about parking and crime," she says. "Now we have to convince people that downtown is anthrax-free."
Still, if many troupes suffered in September, business has basically recovered in the last month or so. A bigger problem is that with the philanthropic world's attention focused elsewhere, arts donationsboth private and corporatehave yet to bounce back. And still up in the air is what will happen when major foundations meet in early 2002 to allocate next year's grants. Making the case for theater funding won't be easy in an environment marked by both recession and war.
The best arguments will probably be those floated by companies such as Arlington's nationally renowned Signature Theatre, which is busy finalizing a deal to create a snazzier home in a new building not far from its converted auto-repair shop in Shirlington. Woolly Mammoth, too, will present a promising profile for funders, now that ground has finally been broken on the downtown tower that will let the company leave its temporary Kennedy Center quarters and move in across 7th Street from the Lansburgh. Round House's long-awaited Bethesda space is at last more than a gleam in a developer's eye (the company will move in May from its old Silver Spring house), Olney's ambitious expansion drive took another step forward with an October groundbreaking, and Studio, a longtime 14th Street–arts–
Big players won't be the only ones seeking grants to secure spaces. Gala will have to raise a small fortune to create a stage in a corner of the proposed Tivoli Theatre complex in Columbia Heights. Either the Washington Stage Guild or the African Continuum Theatre Company, which are currently jockeying for space in the office tower that will rise on the site of the old wax museum at 5th and K Streets NW, will also have some fundraising to do. There's even talk of a second auditorium at the Clark Street Playhouse, where the Washington Shakespeare Company stalwarts, long accustomed to living with Damoclean fears about the privately owned site's development potential, are finally breathing easier as Arlington's arts-friendly county government prepares to acquire the building.
But the year's big news, literally and figuratively, was the range of changes ushered in at the Kennedy Center by its new president, Michael Kaiser, an arts-world mover and shaker who made his name overhauling flailing top-rank institutions. Whether you believe the KenCen fits that bill probably depends on your ZIP code, but there's no denying the new sense of energy that's come over the place since Kaiser's enthronement. There's suddenly loads of cash for everything from parking expansion to programming ($50 million just from arts patron Alberto Vilar, a major contributor to other organizations Kaiser has run), plus new initiatives aimed at sharing the center's arts-management wealth and raising the center's profile at home and around the world. That latter goal got jump-started when Kaiser announced a festival of Sondheim shows for next summer.
Meanwhile, Washington Post theater critic Lloyd Rose began a yearlong sabbatical last January, missing the twin waves of Greek tragedy and Brit comedy she'd have had a field day interpreting and leaving reviewing chores to Nelson Pressley, who not only handled them but also found time to pen features for the Sunday arts section, tackling such topics as the dearth of D.C. theater spaces, the value (or lack thereof) of awards shows, and the reasons the nation's most talked-about plays never see the light of day in D.C.
As for the art itself, well....
Which is a good thing, because the rest of the city's for-profit houses were having ghastly years. The poor, neglected National Theatre, which sat dark for the first eight months of 2001 except for a desultory, widely panned bus-and-truck Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, finally announced a real subscription season, only to see its fall attraction, The Full Monty, shut down operations in Chicago in the wake of Sept. 11. A revamped, lighter version of the musical will arrive late next year, but that cancellation left the city's most audience-friendly touring house empty for all but five weeksthe worst season the National has had since it closed entirely for major renovations some 20 years ago.
The Warner Theatre booked little of note except a Bea Arthur cabaret act (which was well-enough received that it'll open on Broadway next month). And Ford's Theatre destroyed any good will that had been generated by an amusing one-man, 30-odd-character show about a restaurant reservations-taker (Fully Committed) by mounting a To Kill a Mockingbird so ineptly directed that even its cast members were embarrassed by it.
Downtown Repertory Houses
A simultaneous Agamemnon cycle at Arena Stage proved the best work Molly Smith has staged since she arrived there. And she also brought in an Eastern European director to give audiences a startling, darkly brilliant A Streetcar Named Desire that appeared to be taking place in Kosovo rather than New Orleans. But the troupe once regarded as the nation's leading repertory theater also produced dippy, nondramatic hagiographies of Eleanor Roosevelt and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, and mounted an amateurish evening of Native American folk tales that would have required major rewrites to pass muster as an elementary-school pageant. Admirable intentions are everywhere these days at Arena, but it sure would be nice if more of them were attached to decent scripts.
Studio was visited by lots of playwrights this yearA.R. Gurney, Tom Stoppard, William Finn, and David Grimm all stopped by, with all but the last of them professing to be enchanted with what Studio's directors had wrought from their scripts. Grimm, however, stormed out of the theater after the first act of his play Kit Marlowe and fired off a letter to the editor of the Washington Post accusing Studio's director of having "butchered" his play by means of unauthorized cuts and fabricated characters, and accusing the theater of "unethical behavior...total disregard for its contractual obligations...shoddy administration and artistic ineptitude." He then had his agents send a cease-and-desist letter that forced the show's closure. Stoppard's The Invention of Love proved a happier experience all around, with the playwright lingering in the lobby to gush about Studio's production the night before a concurrent Broadway mounting won a Tony Award for Featured Actor, Play.
The Source Theatre continued to mount its own plays while playing host to a full Washington Stage Guild season, and it still managed to find room in its crowded schedule for co-productions with Project Y and the African Continuum Theatre Company. With so much activity, something was bound to click. Clickers included the Halloween comedy A Skull in Connemara, a splendidly directed Italian American Reconciliation, and a sharply observed American Buffalo.
Woolly Mammoth increased its attendance by close to 25 percent by moving from its longtime home on Church Street to the American Film Institute's theater at the Kennedy Center. The troupe's work looks slicker therewhich is not necessarily a good thing, but it didn't noticeably hinder the year's brightest Woolly comedy, Fuddy Meers.
The Woollies also co-produced Clifford Odets' Rocket to the Moon with the increasingly reliable, ever-more-interesting Theater J, while Gala and the Stanislavsky Theater Studio seemed merely to mark time in the once-bustling theater spaces they've essentially taken off the rental market. The Folger Theatre served up its usual brew of unusual Shakespeare, ranging from a gender-bending As You Like It in a forest of toppled columns to a Deep South, electioneering Macbeth with bouffanted witches who counted dimpled chads as they murmured, "Fair is foul and foul is fair."
'Burbs and Beyond
Across the Potomac, Signature crossed up expectations with indifferent mountings of Gypsy and Grand Hotel, but redeemed itself nicely with a sharp Putting It Together, which company director Eric Schaeffer had previously staged to hats-in-the-air raves in Los Angeles but tepid reviews in Manhattan. Meanwhile, the Clark Street Playhouse was becoming the area's most reliable spot to find theater for the under-30 set, with a youthfully exuberant Love's Labour's Lost and an acerbically raucous Macbett from Washington Shakespeare Company, a vivid Project Y expedition to the South Pole (Terra Nova), and an acidly hip Woyzeck from a new troupe called Catalyst. And if WSC's In the Summer House had nothing exuberant, acerbic, or comic about it, Steven Scott Mazzola's production nonetheless had plenty to say about youthful alienation.
Elsewhere in Arlington, the Keegan Theatre tackled its first musical, the Spanish language troupe Teatro de la Luna mounted its fourth International Festival, and the American Century Theatermostly dedicated to rediscovering such forgotten mid-20th-century gems as Philip Barry's Hotel Universeproduced an original musical about Danny Kaye (Danny and Sylvia), one of that period's brighter stars.
And as always, there were the fringe troupes. The Actors Theatre of Washington reorganized itself as a gay company and scored an immediate success with a romantic comedy (After Dark) in the back room of the 1409 Playbill Cafe. Cherry Red not only brought audiences the most consistently inventive titles in local theater (Poona the Fuckdog and Other Plays for Children, for instance), but also, for a change, a genuinely arresting play (Killer Joe).
Other troupes commandeered bars, storefronts, and church basements in a mad scramble to do something that mainstream theaters weren't already doing. And in one particularly happy surprise, a company with the unlikely name of Longacre Lea ventured into a black-box space at Catholic University and staged a hysterically funny, altogether professional, better-than-90-percent-of-everything-else-that's-out-there production of Tom Stoppard's Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth. A Washington Post second-stringer naturally panned it, but audiences came anyway, turning it into an SRO smash.
Let's seize on that as a positive sign, as we head bravely into a new year that promises such inauspicious theatrical glories as Saturday Night Fever and Mamma Mia!. CP