Manhattan Theatre Club; A school for nice young plays

Crimes of the Heart" is a play about three sisters from Hazlehurst, Miss., by Beth Henley. It's a comedy. Never mind that the youngest sister, Babe, has just shot her husband because she "didn't like his looks." And don't worry about the fact that he's harassing her by phone from his hospital room while she and her sisters plan her defense. Bizarre, disturbing family memories fly as thick and fast as the Southern drawls. There's nothing you can do but "bounce helpless through Miss Henley's topsy-turvy madhouse of a play," according to Frank Rich in the New York Times.

The play has been produced twice at regional theaters, once in Mississippi and once in Los Angeles, and it originated at Actors' Theater in Louisville, Ky. After all its travels, it still seems newborn and tender. So it didn't seem the least bit strange to overhear a real Southern voice at the play's preview. It was Beth Henley herself, telling a friend she was "Fahn, just nervous."

Even without the voice of Beth Henley behind me in the dark, the play gave off the ineffable, unruly tang of real life that works in progress tend to have. "Crimes" is packaged so gently that some of its inner working leak out. You feel close to the playwright, wherever she's sitting.

This fits in with Manhattan Theatre Club's policy of providing a good atmosphere for a young play to grow up in. The UpStage series, of which "Crimes" is a part, is devoted to works in progress. It's like a school for nice young plays, mostly from out of town. There is also a tinier Cabaret for revues and reading.

A play produced in the UpStage series or just read in the Cabaret can be worked on, shaped up, and maybe rewritten. It could be rerouted to DownStage, the forum for the MTC's more polished works, or it could even move closer to Broadway than Off Off, which is where the Manhattan Theater Club is.

But the theater club is not a pushy parent. "Crimes" is resolutely unslick, faithfully "down home" in ambiance. Neither the production nor the actors give the slightest wink to the New York audience. You may have told the cabdriver to take you to 321 East 73rd Street, but for the next two hours you are firmly rooted in Beth Henley's Mississippi.

The Manhattan Theatre Club, although it partakes of some of New York's finest theatrical talents, also locates itself, philosophically at least, in that vast imaginary territory where "regional theater" happens. It's like Saul Steinberg's map of the United States, which features a New York skyline with vague receding bands of color on the other side of the Hudson representing the rest of the country, adapted to the world of theater: Broadway in the middle, surrouned by Off Off Broadway, and, very fuzzy and ill-defined, regional, spread in the distance, merging with Off Off.

There are those who contend that the Manhattan Theatre Club is itself a regional theater. Among them are its artistic director, Lynne Meadow, and managing director, Barry Grove.

"You're really looking at, in the last 25 years, a terrific burgeoning in this country of regional theaters that are interested in doing new work for the theater as well as classics," Ms. Meadow says. Regional theaters, theaters anywhere that produce their own works instead of merely serving as halls for Broadway touring productions, are responsible for the fact that, more than before, still-evolving plays are given productions and looked at with interest in their early stages. It is not so common anymore for a play to suddenly loom up on Broadway as a full-blown smash hit (or, alternately, financial disaster).

This didn't happen easily but, Ms. Meadow says, "It's an outgrowth of 25 years of endeavor to try to decentralize a little bit of the talent. There weren't regional theaters before. There were places out of town that national touring companies would go to. There weren't places that were doing a full season. In certain ways, we feel like a [regional] theater, but we're in New York."

The care and tending of plays is the MTC's business and has been ever since it started in 1972. But that's not its only business. It cares for all the people that put a play together -- playwrights, directors, actors, designers, plumbers, carpenters. These people in turn take the play's progress to heart.

"We don't have plumbers who come in and fix the leaks and go away," the director of "Crimes of the Heart," Melvin Bernhardt, says. "Everybody here gets involved. That's nice."

Brian Lago, technical director, builds the sets. He also combs the streets for castoff furniture to use in productions. "We have the second-largest furniture collection off Broadway, almost all of it from off the streets," he says.

Curating this collection is a demanding task. "You'll go for weeks and see nothing but sofas. Then the day the designere wants a sofa, there aren't any anywhere." Nonetheless, they make do, finding their best pieces around Hell's Kitchen.

Set designers, used to commanding large budgets and plattons of aides on Broadway, pitch in at the club. "John Lee Beatty [who did the sets for "Crimes" and won a Tony for "Talley's Folly"] gets a budget of $300,000 on Broadway and here he gets $400 and he's painting the set," Lago says. He maintains that designers like to do it themselves. Another designer "has run into problems on Broadway because he likesm to paint his own sets."

In college, Lago majored in English education. Necessary skills like wallpapering and cabinetry were acquired on the job, usually late at night, and were mostly self-taught.

"People who work here are from a literary or theatrical background," he says of the technical crew. Even if they're just changing light bulbs, "they're here to help the playwright who has a specific vision. People are very intelligent and they're all able to critique the play. Some of the best critiques happen in the shop."

No matter how razor-sharp his acuity, though, he says it's necessary in his job to abstain from cynicism. "If you stop and declare the play as a failure, there's no reason to finish it."

Besides taking care of its plays, the Manhattan Theatre Club finds it crucial to look after itself. One of its faintly paradoxical aims has been to become established. Not in the sense that, say, Broadway's Palace, Shubert, and Royale Theaters, homes of hit musical after hit musical, are established. But in the survival sense.

The theater club is "interested for the long haul," rather than in individual commercial successes, according to Lynne Meadow. "It's not that one play isn't important, but to us it's really the ongoing institution that's the important thing. And will be there tomorrow. Hopefully."

The irony of such an aim for a theater that basically doesn't care how much money its productions generate, and in whose halls you'll never hear the word "boffo," doesn't escape her.

"Although after a few years my mouth stopped curling up at the corners when I would say, "This is what our goal is,' I'd still have to stifle a giffle . . . when I would say that we wanted to build a fully professional theater that had at least two or three operative theaters, one theater for main stage productions , and another theater that would be a kind of tributary to that larger theater, and then a place where we simply could do work that we wanted to try. And . . . I really didn't think it would be possible to gain the support and gain the recognition and quality I was interested in. But mostly there was a concern for survival, that's what made me giggle."

Now, they actually have those three theaters. And they pay actors in a living wage, a distinction Off Off Broadway, but one Ms. Meadow doesn't like to brad about, because she thinks that should be the norm. At the tiem she was announcing her goals, she did well to stifle giggles. Others might have smothered sobs.

The first season they brought forth 65 separate events, from poetry readings to full productions of plays.They had a $75,000 deficit and operated on a month-to-month basis. The place where they envisioned three theaters was "essentially . . . a kind of crumbling old mess," in Ms. Meadow's judgment. She had been hired on a three-month contract, which she thinks had something to do with the fact that she was only 25 years old. "They thought, 'Well, we're not really sure if she's maybe a little flaky,'" she explains.

She thinks she probably was. The theater was founded by a group of businessmen who wanted to support an alternative to Broadway. Gerald Freund and A. E. Jeffcoat, chairman of the board and chairman of the executive committee, respectively, "kind of found me," she said. She had graduated cum laude from Bryn Mawr College. Then she ran the theater program at the American Center in Paris for several years and returned to the United States to study at the Yale School of Drama.

When rounded up by Freund and Jeffcoat, she was working for Harper & Row and directing at St. Clement's Theater.

"They worked together to find the right person, and I think it was somebody like me who would be just naive enough and just energetic enough and just stupid enough to undertake an impossible operation."

Ms. Meadow, a tall, dark, slim, curly-haired woman who wears shadows under her eyes gracefully and talks calmly about such calamitous situations, has her own uses for the word "impossible."

"Maybe when it stops feeling impossible is really when you should stop working," she says in her deep, soothing voice. That voice must soothe the board of directors, because her contract has so far stretched for eight years, and she doesn't think things are so possible yet that she has to think about leaving.

Something else that must have cheered them up was a little number that opened in the theater's 100-seat Cabaret bar with five singers and a lot of music from Fats Waller. You may have heard of "Ain't Misbehavin', "which started at the Manhattan Theater Club in the 1977-78 season and went on to Broadway, London, and a national US tour. They just sent a cast to Paris.Royalties have made up 20 percent of the MTC's operating budget for the last three years.

This is the kind of thing that can happen to a well-tended play, just like any nicely brought-up child could become president. But as with child rearing, aim just for success and the upbringing goes awry.

"We can't fall into the trap of trying to produce commercial hits," Barry Grovesays. They do come in handy, though. And, he says, "With 'Ain't Misbehavin'' not there [it closes this year], we may face a real deficit. The theater today in the US, except on Broadway, is the same as the ballet, the symphony, and the opera. It has to be subsidized. Broadway succeeds at one-shot-deal high-risk capitalization. But commercial theater can't take risks."

The risk-taking noncommercial theaters are left to the mercies of government and private funding. It's not a good year for either, though when inflation threatens, Grove reasons, there's more need for good theater than ever before. Now is "when we need to be spoken to in humanistic terms," he says. "But it's a tough climate."

Though he has no doubt the theater will continue, and though it's recognized as a "cultural resource" by the New York State Council on the Arts, that group has $4 million less than it did in 1974, and even the Ford Foundation is tightening the purse strings.

That leaves individuals and corporations, and Grove is working on both. The company woos individuals by providing good, pleasant service at the box office, so that even if people don't feel the play they have attended spoke to them in exactly the humanistic way they had in mind, the courtesy with which they were handed their tickets may bring them back for another try -- or inspire them to send in a contribution.

All this extra effort because it just refuses to planm on another play's making it big on Broadway. They don't mind if it does. "A killing [on Broadway ] is nice," Susan Schulman, the company's press agent, began.

"It's just the deaths on our stages that are bad," Ms. Meadow said. for all that, I got the impression that maybe they likem plays -- and playwrights -- [and playwrights] with a lot to learn.

"Maybe it's hard to communicate . . . but it really is not our goal; we don't sit here and decide that we're goint to do something that's going to run on Broadway for the next few years, as is the case with 'Aint' Misbehavin'. We really try to make a decision based on the merit of the piece. And despite the flaws."

The concept of merit as something so essential that it doesn't have to do with flaws is both enlightened and work- producing.

Tom Bullard, a founding father of the Manhattan Theatre Club, is currently directing "One Tiger to a Hill," a play about a violent hostage situation in a prison. As I wait in the hall to talk to him, there are thuds as of falling bodies and yells as if some mutiny were going on inside the rehearsal room. One by one, the actors file out, tidy their hair, pick up bags and put on coats, and trot out to 73rd Street. Inside, Mr. Bullard is sitting on a couch, where assistants have ordered him to stay, insisting on moving the furniture back in place themselves.

"To work on a play you can totally trust is different from working on a play that needs to prove itself," he says. "UpStage is devoted to plays in the second category. This play is having some rewrites done between her and Canada. I call the playwright with suggestions, and then he calls two days later and reads the scene on the phone. It's demanding and at times frustrating to see a work mature," he says in an even tone.

If he's mad at the play or at the playwright, he doesn't say. Family squabbles are not disclosed to reporters, after all. And for another thing, he hasn't lost sight of what the play is trying to mature into: "the reason I like the play is, it offers a complicated view of the issues in prison reform, and the human stakes in attempting to deal with the question of crime."

He prefers to direct plays that raise social questions. Two of his most notable efforts were "Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act," by South African playwright Athol Fugard, and "Scenes From Soweto," by Londoner Steve Wilmer, presented as a double bill at the club two years ago. Clive Barnes's Review of them in the New York Post applauded "an important evening of dramatic statement. It is shouting aloud about the human condition." He faulted the writing of the Wilmer play, but said that in this case, style was secondary to the message.

How much can a play have wrong with it and still get produced?

"A lot," Ms. Meadow says. There are fewer productions now than in the early days of the club, and more plays are sent in, but they are still willing to take risks if they admire the intentions. "We look first for an urgent voice rather than a flawless form," the artistic director's statement reads. She figures an urgent voice will speak to people's needs, even while the flaws are being worked out.

An example is "Mass Appeal," from last year, which will open on Broadway this spring. "When I selected the play and we chose to go ahead and produce it, we went with a director who had never directed before, Geraldine Fitzgerald, a playwright [Bill C. Davis] who was having his first professional prodcution done , with a play that had gone through many rewrites and was still in the process of being rewritten, that had, we felt, definite problems. . . . There were parts of the play we loved. . . . But there were things we had great questions about, so it constructed a risk."

One of those impossibilities she thrives on. Another one was "Losing Time," which Jane Alexander and Shirley Knight appeared in."It was a very outspoken, outrageous piece that was a shock to a lot of people and made them very upset. But it was something that all of us felt was really worth working on."

So why does someone with so little regard for the standard idea of success want to become "established"?

"You don't want to have to do a play that has a name, or with an actor that has a name or with a director that has a name. You want to do exactly what you want to do. And that's what I said from the beginning. I want to have people say 'OK, it's the Manhattan Theatre Club, therefore we will come and see it." she doesn't even bother to stifle the giggles this ideal of hers still calls forth.

"I was interested in labels. They're gonna look at it and say, 'This means good.' I really wanted our name to be associated with quality." One way of getting this kind of willing, supportive audience is with the subscription series, which allows adventurous theatergoers to sign up for an entire tour of the company's risk and delights. Another is just by earning a good reputation. It has done both. Some 60,000 people attended MTC plays this year, of whom 5, 550 were subscribers.

Melvin Bernhardt is a fan of the club's audience. "They're very responsive. And if they don't like something, they'll let you know that, too. I've seen that happen. They're very intelligent. If they don't like something, they're very clear as to why they don't. So it's very helpful to those of us who are developing material."

Mr. Bernhardt is a thin, energetic man who smiles toothily but has a sharp gleam of wit in his eye. He is also charming. When I when to talk to him and Beth Henley during casting for the play, he looked up, beamed, and said, "Did you want to audition?" If anyone is a connoisseur of audiences, he is. He won the tony Award in 1978 for directing "Da" and got one of his Obies for Paul Zindel's "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds." He has also worked Off Broadway in Joseph Papp's Public Theater, in regional theater (Buffalo, Hartfold, and Cincinnati), and is one of the directors of the NBC soap opera "Another World."

The audiences may all be different, but, he says, "Collaboration is what makes any theatrical event happen. Starting with the script. It's just turned on by the script and by each other, and the flow of ideas. that's ehat makes rehearsals so fun. Turning on the actors. And they turn youm on. You get all sorts of wonderful things." Ms. Henley, sitting next to him and gazing over a thick scarf she is swaddled in at a notebook, looks cheered by this.

They dis get some wonderful things out of "Crimes of the Heart." But they had to. Lynne Meadow says so: "I feel more and more, the older I get, the need for the theater, and the need for a place where it does feel intimate. Maybe this is very banal, but you walk up to the cash machine and press the button and it says, 'Is there anything else I can do to help?' . . . What is this? More than ever we need this kind of ritual experience, where we come in and sit a little too close to people. But it's not like the subway. You see your own kind up there, doing something for you, you know? Making you an offering. Because they really worked hard and they want you to see."

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