As You Like It
“I am not the honoree!” protested the handsome co-president and C.O.O. of Bear Stearns, Warren Spector, to a group of friends who thought otherwise. “When Ken Lerer”—the former AOL Time Warner exec and sluggish Huffington Post blogger—“stepped down,” he shrugged, “I was just ready to step up.”
Last week, the 50th annual summer gala for the Public Theatre marked the start of Mr. Spector’s term as the theater’s chairperson.
The outgoing chairperson, Mr. Lerer, was introduced by theater director George C. Wolfe as a man who “ultimately really secretly wants to be an actor.” Looking back at Mr. Wolfe, Mr. Lerer didn’t pull any punches. Instead, he began to tear up. “I don’t want to be up here. I still know nothing about theater, except to stay out of the way of the guys who know what they’re doing.”
“This is one of my favorite things all year, coming here in the park in the summer,” said a member of the LAByrinth Theatre Company to his friend Philip Seymour Hoffman. Mr. Hoffman was in the summer spirit—eating steak and wearing sneakers. An actor at their table described his experience working alongside Raul Julia in the public’s production of Othello. “I’m very sorry I missed that,” said slinky Amanda Peet.
Once the speechifying and the yawning and the clapping subsided, and the last Baldwin offspring had licked his lips of the seared swordfish with cucumber-mint sauce, the picnicking thespians swerved inward—toward the Delacorte—where they were handed red and white “butt pads,” courtesy of Target.
The performance was a brand of paradise: The azure stage glowed in the night, executive director Mara Manus walked about with a bag of potato chips and pale pink kitten heels, and the usually loudmouthed and lovely Sandra Bernhard watched quietly from up front.
During the intermission, Keanu Reeves—lesser known for his appreciation of Shakespeare—leaned against a railing like a 42-year-old James Dean. “I had a friend who was in the cast, so I came,” he said. Two hours later, Mr. Reeves clutched the hand of his fair maiden Rosalind (though she is better known as a sometime Portia), the blond beauty Lynn Collins.
“It just makes such a difference for me,” Ms. Collins said, clutching her beau, “To be able to reach an audience that can’t pay 50 bucks for a ticket.” Mayor Bloomberg agreed: “Warren [Spector] talked about free theater,” he said, addressing the benefactors. “But for you, it’s not free.”
In khakis and a purple shirt, breezy Alec Baldwin reflected on the Public’s past performances, while managing to balance three wine glasses. They were filled, oddly, with water. “It was great seeing Meryl do Seagull with Kevin. All those actors who made their reputations in the park come back to the park.”
After the final clap, theatergoers transitioned effortlessly from their role as passive stargazers to their duty as bubbly schmoozers at the after-party, which was held on the uppermost deck of Central Park’s Belvedere Castle. Banquet tables were heaped with cold cuts and cookies. A woman in a red strapless getup held something above her head: “Look,” she shouted. “A cookie shaped like Shakespeare!”
“The Public Theatre has a very personal side for me,” said James Waterston, Shakespeare in the Park’s Orlando, invoking his father, Sam Waterston. “In my dining room growing up, we had a poster of his Hamlet production with the face on it opening his mouth, and he pasted in at one time a little blurb that said, ‘Eat your dinner.’”
Set about on chairs across the lawn earlier, guests had received complimentary copies of the SparkNotes edition of As You Like It. The cheat sheet pairs the original text with a “modern English translation” on the facing page to aid the slow. Philip Seymour Hoffman hugged his all evening.
Against the stone railings, young couples gazed across Turtle Pond, whose still waters contained the reflections of their illuminated “tartini” glasses. “You can see them taking down the stage,” one observer said, pointing across. “You can see a turtle!” said another.
“During rehearsal there have been raccoons running across the stage,” sighed Jennifer Ikeda, the thin actress who plays Celia to perfection. “Then turtles lay their eggs backstage, and raccoons eat the turtle eggs.”
Mr. Spector weaved behind the caterers at the bar. He held a wing of fried chicken in one hand. He ate it as he walked.
“Next year,” Mr. Baldwin said, “We’ll have enough funding to put on two shows, two performances, instead of the usual one.”
Newly knighted artistic director Oskar Eustis summarized the evening when he paraphrased the play itself: “Are not these woods more free than court?” Looking over Central Park, he said of the play, “Tonight you’ll go into a theater of people who live in a corrupt city environment. And they flee to an arcadia—a place that makes their lives worth living. You walk in from 81st Street today, and you’re there.”
Everything Must Go
If you listen closely, you can still hear the mourners keening over the passing of Shakespeare & Company and Coliseum, even Pageant, all the late, great bookshops remaindered by the greedy Goliaths of Borders and Barnes & Noble.
And now even the Great White Way is getting the shaft. Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, which has sat quietly on 71st Street between Broadway and West End Avenue for over 25 years—smack in between two super-sized Barnes & Nobles—is set to face its final curtain. Owner Glenn Young, a publisher and longtime friend of the Manhattan theatrical set, is calling it quits.
What cruel things have they done to force you out of business, Mr. Young?
“The story that’s most important to me is that people realize there’s a sale going on,” Mr. Young said.
And what’s more, the store’s closing isn’t the fault of big business in the slightest.
“I don’t think a place like Applause has a right to exist,” he said, stirring his spoon in a saucer of asparagus soup at Cafe Mozart last week.
Jeez, no wonder this place is going under.
“We’re really closing because people stopped coming. I mean, it’s really that simple,” Mr. Young said, clasping his large, friendly hands. He was dressed in casual slacks and a striped short-sleeve button-down. “If people kept coming we’d still be there.”
Well, the people have spoken, and apparently a charming shop stuffed to the brim with hard-to-find scripts, out-of-print Screen Worlds, ancient Playbills and other theatrical ephemera just ain’t cutting it these days.
But Mr. Young, 52 and an Upper West Sider himself, insisted he bears no ill will.
“I’m a big fan of the Barnes & Noble superstores and always have been,” Mr. Young said, keeping a straight face. “Those superstores have created more culture on a more available basis for Americans and their children. One can grumble about their supremacy, but one has to be grateful for their existence.”
Such comments notwithstanding, Mr. Young seems sane enough. A Chicago native, he did graduate work at the Yale School of Drama and taught advanced playwriting at Columbia and Wesleyan. He said he’s rubbed elbows with folks like Brian Cox, Christopher Reeve and Stella Adler, among others. Oh, and he founded one of the theater world’s most successful independent publishing companies, Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, which boasts a 500-title catalog (including works by Al Hirschfeld, Terry Gilliam and William Goldman) and was recently sold to (surprise!) print behemoth Hal Leonard.
A quarter century in the biz doesn’t slip by without a few good stories. One evening Mr. Young was chatting with the late Ms. Adler at her Fifth Avenue apartment. The grand dame asked why he hadn’t shown any interest in her book.
Mr. Young took a deep breath and said, “Because that book really isn’t worthy of you.”
Ms. Adler, he reported, “absorbed that very graciously, and about two months later she invited me to tea at her apartment and she said, ‘Darling, I’m leaving for California tomorrow and here’s the key to my apartment. In this next room you’ll find all of my notes, all of my journals, every word I have ever spoken in any classroom. I’d like you to spend the summer coming into this apartment, reading those notebooks. When I return I want you to tell me what to do with my life.’”
The man’s got chutzpah! And later, he rejected a book offer from Oliver Stone.
“His agents sent me a screenplay of The Doors. I just didn’t think that screenplay was terribly necessary to the experience of that movie. I thought it was sort of redundant. My colleagues said, ‘Yeah, but don’t turn down Oliver Stone.’” Here Mr. Young took a moment to smile. “And I did.”
Strangely, there are few cries for an Applause encore. No Clyde Haberman laments in the New York Times Metro section. No verbose Voice requiems. What’s the story, media folk?
“I think we’ve all become inured to this now,” said former New York Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath. “It’s just become harder and harder to run a bookstore in Manhattan.” Mr. McGrath admitted he hasn’t been a regular patron of Applause. “It was really for theater buffs. It’s real buff stuff,” he said.
And Frank Rich, while a fan of the store, said he is more attached to its midtown rival, the Drama Book Shop.
“I never switched over to Applause—and this is no comment on it, just on me,” Mr. Rich wrote in an e-mail. “I know it’s a good store and am sorry to hear of its demise.”
As for the shop’s regulars, Mr. Young said he’s received a lot of support.
“One customer said to me, ‘I’m happy about the sale, but I’d be much happier to pay full price and have you stay.”
Applause closes Aug. 30—to make room for a dry cleaner. Any purchase of $60 or more is 60 percent off, which, last time we checked, beats Amazon.com any day of the week.