Lynne Meadow and Mandy Greenfield—the key producing forces at Manhattan Theatre Club—are as professionally compatible as their surnames are synonymous, a happy coincidence for MTC, where Ms. Greenfield, as artistic producer, functions Off Broadway (with two stages downstairs at City Center). She often ascends to Broadway to assist Ms. Meadow, who’s artistic director of the whole shebang.
Hey, what’s in a title? The point is: the shes of this shebang have been making beautiful theater for a decade—and never more so than now. Currently, they are basking in the glories, critical and commercial, of the three hottest plays in town.
MTC’s main stem offering—The Assembled Parties, a recent Tony contender for Best Play—ends its run July 28 as the Friedman’s longest-running play. Over at City Center, The Explorers Club in the Stage I space and Choir Boy at The Studio at Stage II have both posted their second extensions, carrying performances through Aug. 4.
These plays couldn’t be more divergent in tone, content or structure, but they share one thing in common: each is impeccably produced to serve the vision of its author.
The parties Richard Greenberg assembled for his play are two different branches of a Jewish family, converging for Christmas dinner in 1980 and again, after a 20-year intermission, in 2000. Over the decades, deaths and family fallouts have radically reduced attendance to two unsinkable (though listing) sisters-in-law and their self-elected Galahad, who entered their privileged environment that first Christmas and was so awestruck by the rambling maze of 14 rent-stabilized rooms overlooking Central Park and the smart-talking sophisticates filling them that he stuck around.
That bygone era of gracious living spins into view on a revolve, ingeniously devised by set designer Santo Loquasto, who twists out eight different playing areas in
Act I—including sitting room, kitchen, hallway, bedroom and dining room—for secrets to be spilled and skeletons to be rattled. The one room not lived in—the living room—occupies all of Act II and, like the characters, shows signs of age and a reversal of fortunes.
This world has been richly realized by the director, who just happens to be Ms. Meadow. Her real ambition has always been directing—and, to that end, she and her executive producer, Barry Grove, founded MTC in 1970—but she’s been evenhanded in the interim, restricting herself usually to one show (out of a possible dozen) a year and hiring major talents to helm the rest. Her uncanny ability to staff her productions with the right people in the right jobs has brought Manhattan Theatre Club more Tonys (19) and more Pulitzers (six) than any other theatrical institution.
“There is nowhere that my fingerprints aren’t on a play that I’m directing,” Ms. Meadow told The Observer in a recent interview. “You just don’t see them, that’s all.” Such is the subtle little trick that she picked up during her “down time” from directing—producing plays, i.e., supporting the playwright and director in their overall view, making sure everything in the picture works. It’s how costumer Jane Greenwood virtually hands the double-cast Jake Silbermann his second-act character and how Jessica Hecht and Judith Light actually wear the changes a couple of decades have made in their lives.
MTC’s latest and 19th Tony is Ms. Light’s second in a row, a kind of quarrelsome companion to the one she won last year for Other Desert Cities. This time out, she’s a cranky Jersey in-law to Ms. Hecht’s extravagantly charming CPW hostess.
“A Tony would have been nice for the play,” Ms. Meadow admitted, “but we’ve got our fingers crossed for a Pulitzer.” It’s the one award that keeps eluding Mr. Greenberg, a finalist in 1998 (Three Days of Rain) and 2003 (Take Me Out).
Following her boss’s lead, Deputy Greenfield aggressively attended all aspects of producing Nell Benjamin’s madcap tear through Victorian London, The Explorers Club, and the detail shows. Basically, the Legally Blonde lyricist is striking another blow for feminism—hard, on the funny bone. Instead of Elle Woods matriculating musically at Harvard Law School, we have plucky anthropologist Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Jennifer Westfeldt) storming the gates of an all-male adventurers club, a stuffy haven for fuddy-duddies who blanch about the prospects of her becoming a member. But she does come with a near-naked, blue-man native from her jungle travels (Carson Elrod), who’s recruited into tending the club bar and is soon sending tumblers of whiskey whizzing into the hands of an astonishingly agile clientele (Lorenzo Pisoni, John McMartin, David Furr, Steven Boyer, Brian Avers).
Mr. Pisoni and Mr. Elrod, seasoned practitioners of physical comedy, came in for special praise from Ms. Greenfield: “They were definitely instrumental in helping us find bits and moments. Everything about their skill set and talent is so unique and so rare. They contributed in innumerable ways to the ultimate experience the audience is having. We really have such extraordinary actors up on that stage.”
What attracted her to the play, she said, was “its boldness and courage. It’s hard these days to write funny, hard to be unapologetically comedic. You rarely see this kind of work on a New York stage.
“When I read it—I can only trust my own instincts—I laughed out loud and thought, ‘If this happens to me encountering it on a page, let’s see what happens if we put it up in front of people at a reading.’” Ms. Meadow is so pleased with Ms. Greenfield’s call that she now wishes she “could run the play for the next few years.” Indeed, there is “some interest” in that. “People are talking about moving it, so we’ll see what happens.”
Ms. Greenfield found Marc Bruni, her director, outside MTC’s immediate pool of talent. “I first started taking notice of his work a couple of years ago when he invited me to a reading of a play which he was doing,” she recalled. “Readings are readings, but when you can detect what a director can do from just a couple of hours with a company of actors, it sparks my interest.”
What cinched it for her was his energetic helming of Old Jews Telling Jokes. “That really showed me he had the goods to deliver a comedy that’s part art, part math. It’s artful, but it’s also mathematical. I knew he could really handle this piece.”
The true star of The Explorers Club is obvious the moment you walk into the theater: Donyale Werle. Another MTC newbie pressed into service by Ms. Greenfield, she won a Tony last year for her inventive scenery for Peter and the Starcatcher. Here she has apparently been given license to kill, stuff and mount all manner of wildlife, including a startled-looking giraffe, which serves as the club’s throw rug.
The set next door at Choir Boy (a play that, like The Assembled Parties, was commissioned by MTC), is not nearly as much fun, but it’s cleverly designed by David Zinn and endlessly functional. Applying the theory of the Murphy bed to a dormitory room, the main set folds up and pulls down, facilitating swift scene changes from classroom to locker room to office to auditorium.
Eleven classic spirituals are used for shifting the scenery, delivered full-out and a cappella by various members of the cast, who play five African-American preppies. Even the headmaster (the strong-lunged Chuck Cooper) is allowed a number. The selection of songs—and every word in the play—is the work of Tarell Alvin McCraney (The Brother/Sister Plays, Wig Out!). “Each song that’s in the play does something to move the story forward in some way,” said Ms. Greenfield. “How the songs got used and where exactly they went—that was really the outgrowth of our collaboration, but he chose the songs himself. He added the song for Chuck, once we knew we had him. It’s, like, ‘How do you have Chuck Cooper and not let him sing?’”
When MTC commissioned him four years ago, Mr. McCraney was just on the cusp of wider recognition. “Lots of things were happening to him simultaneously,” Ms. Greenfield recalled, “a residency at the Royal Shakespeare Company, becoming a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company—but he was very up front with us: ‘It’s going to take me some time to deliver this, both because I have a number of other opportunities that have come along, and also because it’s a very personal play for me and I want to get it right.’”
MTC was willing to work with that, giving him the time he needed, and co-premiering the piece last fall at the London’s Royal Court Theatre so that he would have more time to work on it before bringing it to New York. When he did, none of the British cast was used. The play was recast stateside by Nancy Piccione and Kelly Gillespie. “I wish I’d been a fly on the wall at those auditions,” Ms. Greenfield said. “They brought in the best of the New York theater talent. Listening to these young men was just an embarrassment of riches. We really found the crème de la crème.”
Less challenging was finding the cast’s lone Caucasian, a Mr. Pendleton, an old civil-rights marcher brought in to give the boys a course in creative thinking. “We were sitting around brainstorming, and I said, ‘Well, what about Austin Pendleton?’ It got this huge laugh, then we decided, ‘That’s it!’ It was a crazy ah-ha! moment.”
Coming off a successful season is always daunting when it comes to cranking up a new one, but for Ms. Meadow, it’s business as usual. “We plan on successes every time,” she said.
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