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Fringe Report is now closed. Fringe Report closed on its 10th anniversary, Thursday 12 July 2012. It remains online as a record of 10 exciting years in the arts. Till July 2013, previously unwritten content is being added to the site from the past 10 years, but we are no longer reviewing new material. You can still write to us on the existing email addresses. Good luck with your shows.
A Letter from The Big Town
A 100-seater store room in Greenwich Village becomes a venue again. How David Elliott and Martin Platt re-opened the Perry Street Theatre
by Larry Herold
Letter 3 - September 05
Letter 2 - March 05
Letter 1 - January 05
Letter 3 - September 05
David Elliott is a bit frantic, and it’s no wonder. He and his partner Martin Platt have taken over a storage room in New York’s Greenwich Village and turned it back into a theatre.
Despite a ringing phone, incoming e-mails, and a to-do list that grows by the minute, David offers me a cupcake, baked by his fiancée, and unravels the strange story of how he and Martin came to be in charge of the Perry Street Theatre.
David had already helped start two other theatres in New York and directed a dozen shows. As an associate producer, he had a hit with the award-winning The Exonerated, which started at 45 Bleecker Theater before a national tour. Martin was also long on experience: he is the founding artistic director of both the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and Santa Fe Stages in Arizona. He also produced last year’s Here Lies Jenny starring Bebe Neuwirth (of Frasier fame) at New York’s Zipper Theatre.
So picture a couple of pals strolling down a charming side street in Greenwich Village in the winter of 2004. Both of them have been through the ups and downs of life in the theatre. Both are restless, searching for a new challenge. They pass a building that looks suspiciously like a performance space.
'What’s this?' says Martin.
'Used to be a theater,' says David, who had lived on that very block for 12 years.
It appears to be empty, deserted, forbidding.
What the two friends were staring at was the façade of the Perry Street Theatre, a stage with a mysterious past. Opened in 1975 by Czechoslovakian actor Vasek Simek, the Perry Street had been touched at various moments by Sir Anthony Hopkins, Eric Clapton, Caryl Churchill, Kathleen Chalfant, Cherry Jones, Denis O’Hare, Lisa Kron, Marsha Mason, Regina Taylor and Courtney B Vance.
David Drake’s The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, a legendary NY play, ran there for more than a year in the 1990s. Staring at the weathered sign, David Elliott suddenly recalled that he'd actually seen a show there himself in 1994 called Ghost In The Machine, produced by the Barrow Group.
'Is anybody using it?' said Martin.
'I don’t know,' said David.
The Perry Street had once been a lively space. With about 100 seats, professional light and sound, set in a swinging location full of street traffic and culture lovers, it was a busy Off Broadway house for 20 years. And then for no obvious reason, in 1995 the lights went dark. What had happened? A tragedy? A fire? Ghosts in the machine?
The two friends strolled over to the Village Den and sat in their regular booth discussing projects they hoped to work on in the next year. Unknown to David, Martin had hatched a low-tech plan. He'd slipped a letter through the Perry Street mail slot asking for information.
Two days later - not weeks or months – Martin got his answer.
It turned out the building's owners had decided they were ready to rent the space out.
Surely there was a catch. Prepared for the worst, they inspected the space and were stunned at what they found. There had been no fire, no flood, no visible acts of God.
What there was, was theatre seats, some lights, classic bare brick walls, and a high ceiling. For a couple of theatre lovers, it was a dream come true.
The owners, a foundation that promotes Tibetan culture in China, had bought the theatre along with a building next door in 1995 and simply decided to use it as a store room.
Boxes of files and dusty furniture were everywhere, but otherwise the space was almost ready for opening night. It was as though a show had closed and the crew had struck the set, locked the doors and waited.
'We couldn’t believe what good shape it was in,' says David. 'Once we cleaned up the seats and rebuilt the stage, it was like the theatre had never been dark.'
There were dressing rooms, a spiral staircase on stage, even a spacious office upstairs. The physical location, far from the hordes of tourists that clog Times Square, is wonderful - just around the corner from the Village Vanguard, the world-famous jazz mecca where Monk, Miles and Dexter rocked the house.
The partners set to work finding a show and chose Shylock, a one-man piece that Martin had produced in the UK in 1998 and New York in 1999. He'd showcased it at New York Performance Works. David had seen it, helped Martin get the show on the boards, and the two forged a strong friendship. It was written and performed by Gareth Armstrong (The Archers' Mike Tucker and Bishop of Borchester).
In the play, Gareth Armstrong uses Shakespeare’s Shylock from The Merchant of Venice as a jumping-off point to reflect on the history of the Jews in Europe, the place that drama and storytelling have in our lives, and the ways we read and misread the past.
The play began life at the Salisbury Playhouse, and Gareth has now performed it so many times he's written a book about it - A Case For Shylock: Around the World With Shakespeare’s Jew - that sold well in the Perry Street lobby.
Following his 10-week run, Gareth gives the Perry Street high marks, pointing out the 'lovely intimacy' of the space, the warm acoustics, and the 'terrific bars and restaurants within yards' of the stage. He opened his show with high hopes, but they were dashed when New York’s heavyweight newspaper gave it a lukewarm review. It will take actor and producer alike a while to get over the disappointment.
'I love that play,' says David with a sigh. 'If the New York Times had given us a good review, it would have run for two years.'
Now the dust has settled, and David and Martin are plotting their next move - figuring ways to alert the public that the theatre, shuttered for so long, is back in business.
'We want this place to be vibrant, get the neighbors used to coming again,' says David. They’re planning a production of Treason, a new play about Ezra Pound by Sallie Bingham which Martin will direct. 'We didn’t get into this to be landlords,' says David.
Just now David needs to get back to work. The details (and the letdown) of wrapping up a production are weighing on his mind. 'It’s always hard, closing down a show,' he says. But there’s the raft of good reviews posted on the front door, a shiny performing space ready for a new tenant - and the matter of his upcoming wedding. Things are good.
'Come see us again,' says David. 'We’re gonna be here for a while.'
Sounds like a plan. More next time from the Big Town.
Letter 2 - March 05
Just breeze into the Algonquin Hotel on 44th Street in New York City, and you immediately know it’s a classic. All over Manhattan there’s a thousand buildings desperate to be the biggest, the shiniest, the swankest, but five minutes in the lobby of this baby and you’re convinced that none of that matters.
What you have right here in the middle of the Theatre District is a soothing spot where you can sit and have an actual conversation about – well - about why there’s no real plays on Broadway anymore.
Or about whether baseball can survive when it turns out that the sluggers with the big muscles didn’t get that way by drinking lots of milk.
You might even talk about the Round Table, the group of vicious wits who got famous in the 1920s for having lunch and cracking wise in the dining room of this very same Algonquin.
Dorothy Parker - critic, short story writer, alcoholic - was a founder of the Round Table and the owner of an acid tongue. When she asked a little girl how she was spending Halloween, the child said ‘Ducking for apples.’ Parker replied: ‘There, but for a consonant, is the story of my life.’
George S Kaufman, Edna Ferber, Harold Ross, Alexander Woollcott, Robert Sherwood, Harpo Marx - and occasionally Noel Coward. And critic, humorist, and actor Robert Benchley, who came in from a rainstorm saying ‘I’ve got to get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.’
Despite their reputation as jolly wits, the Round Table was one nasty bunch. ‘I have never encountered a more hard-bitten crew,’ said Ferber. She meant they had the sensibility of newspaper scribes (not much).
Nothing was sacred - not personal problems, not failure, not even death. Kaufman the great playwright spent years as a newspaper critic, and a desperate promoter once asked him, ‘How do I get my leading lady’s name in your paper?’ ‘Shoot her,’ said Kaufman.
But what we – and by we I mean our group of actors, directors and writers, Times Square Playwrights – like to do in the Algonquin Hotel is perform. You might remember TSP from an earlier Fringe Report column. We give staged readings of plays all over the Big Town.
We’ve been in some dumps and some styley spots, but without question the Algonquin is our favorite.
I mean - how can you beat it? A lobby full of comfy chairs and friendly waiters. If that doesn’t suit, you can slip through a passage to the Blue Bar - plush booths that are pure film noir. If the Blue Bar is packed, you can shuffle off to the dining room and eat where the Round Table ate.
Exciting, non? But here’s the high point - a room just off the lobby where we get to do our thing.
You pass through double doors into a little cabaret space that’s as long and narrow as a train car. Most nights there’s a jazz singer or a chanteuse working the room. Harry Connick Junior - before he was famous - Diana Krall, Jack Jones.
It’s the Oak Room – it seats maybe 65. Booths sweep around the walls, round tables fill the gaps. Recessed lighting, candles on table-cloths, waiters drifting through. The audience know they’re a small select group and buzz with the kick of it.
The reason Times Square Playwrights gets to perform in the Oak Room is that the general manager, Anthony Melchiorri, decreed it. He’s a throwback to the 1920s, the time when the manager and owner was a man named Frank Case. Case was a friend to artists, writers, editors - even newspapermen.
In the years following Case’s death, the hotel declined. Eventually the rooms got dusty; the lobby got shabby. But recently, new owners stepped in and put eight million dollars into renovation - and brother, that’s a lot of renovation. And they hired manager Melchiorri - who has some big ideas of his own.
‘I want to be the new Frank Case,’ says Melchiorri. ‘I want to bring plays and playwrights back to the Algonquin.’ As I’m sure you’ll agree, that’s the kind of talk that warms theatrical hearts. Times Square Playwrights rehearse at a big table in the lobby, the one Tallulah Bankhead called her favourite. When it gets too crowded, Melchiorri gives us a banquet room upstairs and we rehearse into the night.
Our first show at the Algonquin was in December 04. I’d written a play called Preacherosity, about a Baptist church in a small town in Texas - the kind of town where a US President might grow up. The church needs a new preacher. They find one who seems to know all the answers – and all the questions.
A cabaret room might seem like an odd space for a play about preachers and preaching, but on this cold, rainy night in December, it fitted like a glove. The crowd dried off, settled in, and the doors were shut tight. We kept the lights up so the actors could read their scripts and let it rip. We kept the piano too.
Sometimes the cast was gathered it, other times they roamed to the far corners, shouting their lines over the heads of the audience. At the interval, waiters swarmed in and took another round of drink orders. People gossiped, traded email addresses.
Late in the second act, Melchiorri poked his head in. When he saw New Yorkers shoulder to shoulder in his booths, listening to a play, he almost smiled. ‘Keep it up,’ he said, and vanished.
Our second show was in January 05, a comedy called Hearts And Flowers, written by Broadway playwright Richard Baer. A couple of crusty heart-attack victims are forced to recuperate in the same hospital room, and things get testy. And funny – like The Odd Couple with bedpans.
The house was packed, we had to turn people away. The laughter was so loud, the desk manager popped in to ask if everything was all right. The first step on the road to Broadway for this play? Let’s hope so. After the show, the producer of Broadway’s Little Women said she thought we had something. ‘I want to help you take this play to a wider audience,’ she said. Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about – that’s why we do this. We’re staging a second reading at the (esteemed) National Arts Club on Gramercy Park in April 05.
The third Algonquin reading was in February. The play was Miles To Babylon - about Ella O’Neill, the mother of the great playwright Eugene O’Neill. It’s based on the true story of Ella’s return to the girls’ school of her childhood, where she searched for old friends and tried to kick her addiction to morphine.
On the night, the weather forecast was for the wildest blizzard in five years, seven inches of snow, and people stayed home. The lucky ones came anyway and the show went on. With a great cast, the Oak Room became a convent, and as the ghosts of Dorothy Parker and George S Kaufman looked on, the Algonquin was once again home to plays and playwrights.
The mighty Kaufman, in his review of a new Broadway comedy, wrote, ‘There was laughter in the back of the theatre, leading to the belief that someone was telling jokes back there.’
We’re doing our best to live up to the legacy of the Round Table. If you’re in New York, come by. More next time from The Big Town.
Letter 1 - January 05
‘New York, New York – so good, they bombed it twice.’ Hmm. It was an English satirist who wrote that. But I do know how much you love us (secretly). And I know what you’re thinking. A column from New York City. Just what we need.
I’m going to avoid whether the lights on Broadway have the edge on Shaftesbury Avenue or vice versa. And if we do better pizzas
(though I’d argue a strong case for our Martinis). Plus we do have a sense of irony. I know because I came from Texas, and modest understatement is stitched into my DNA.
I’m a playwright based in New York, and a frequent visitor to London. Over the next few months I’ll be filing despatches from what we modestly call The Big Town. Likely as not they’ll centre round the adventures of Times Square Playwrights. I’d like to use this first column to tell you about us. And if you’re over here, you’re welcome to join us.
Times Square Playwrights is a group of actors and writers that workshops new writing. But it’s more interesting than it sounds. Honest.
Every Tuesday night, we get together to read scenes from new plays written by our playwrights and cast from our pool of actors. We listen to and comment on new works as they take shape. There’s about 100 of us.
And just about every other week, somewhere in New York City, we put on a fully rehearsed staged reading. That’s where actors move about the stage, script-in-hand, bringing the piece to life. It might be in a delicate little church up in Harlem. Maybe at a Barnes & Noble bookstore so big it has two Starbucks. Or maybe at the Algonquin Hotel, once home to the Round Table of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and George S Kaufman.
Wherever it is, we write the play, cast it, and rehearse it. Then we ask friends, family and the general public to have a listen for free. We invite agents, casting directors, theatre owners, critics, and potential investors.
The idea is to have a good time while exposing our work to people who like it, people who might want to hear more of it, and people who might want to help us take it to the next level.
Times Square Playwrights (TSP) started in 2002 on a city park bench. I’d like to introduce you to some of our regulars:
Tom Thornton is the director. Tom’s been in theatre so long he’s grown to look like a Shakespearean character – in his case, Falstaff. Tom’s acted and directed from Seattle to Rhode Island, from Los Angeles to Florida. He’s toured the Midwest doing Shakespeare, dinner theatre, children’s theatre. He’s worked with some big-timers: Barbra Streisand, Anne Jackson, Rue McClanahan, Dan Hedaya,
Olympia Dukakis and Orson Welles.
Actor Mike Jankowitz. Mike studied with Stella Adler - who was taught by Konstantin Stanislavski, acted for Clifford Odets and taught Marlon Brando and
Lovely actress Dawn Jamieson. Anyone lucky enough to catch Inherit the Wind would have seen her perform with George C Scott, Tony Randall and Charles Durning. And Dawn was on Broadway in Arthur Miller’s The Price with Hector Elizondo and Eli Wallach.
Writer Richard Baer. Richard made his debut on the Great White Way (our modest euphemism for Broadway) in 1938, directed by Orson Welles, in Danton’s Death.
When Richard’s play Mixed Emotions ran on Broadway half a century later, it starred Harold Gould, Katherine Helmond, and another of our members, Vince Capone.
Vince Capone is a handsome chap who looks like the love child of Keanu Reeves and Julie Delpy. You can check this from Vince’s role in Big with Tom Hanks.
Actor Doug Stone is a favourite of Mercedes Ruehl. Doug’s a crafty actor with a gravelly voice. He recently finished shooting Tom DiCillo’s Social Graces, with Steve Buscemi and Catherine Keener.
Actress Irma St Paule has appeared in 40 feature films, and TV shows including Law & Order, and Sex & the City. Her last time on Broadway was in The Rose Tattoo with Anthony LaPaglia.
Norman Weinstein is currently working with one of
Stephen Sondheim’s protégées on a musical adaptation of his play, Two Cats and a Kid. Norman just finished a run of his play Arthur of the Little Round Table at the Gene Frankel Theater.
Fern Howell’s career began in a Tennessee Williams play, Vieux Carré, with the playwright himself in the audience.
Scott Williams does one of the voices in the animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV series, and creates the artwork for superstar singer Alicia Keys’ fan club.
Adorable actress Candice Myers was the photo double for Regina King
for the Miss Congeniality 2 poster.
A typical Times Square Playwrights night contains 15 or 20 scenes. You’ll know what comes next. After the action, it’s off to a watering hole. We air-kiss, deconstruct the evening, and complain about how our agents, friends and families just don’t understand.
Come and join us for an evening if you’re visiting. More next time from The Big Town.
(c) Larry Herold 2005
Fringe Report (c) Fringe Report 2002-2013