From basement to Broadway

N.Y.'s Roundabout gets a controversial multimillion-dollar makeover

When actor Nathan Lane rolled onto the stage of the former Selwyn Theater in a wheelchair last month, he inaugurated the most recent example of the rebirth of Times Square.

It was the opening of the revival of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's American classic "The Man Who Came to Dinner" at The Roundabout Theater Company, long acclaimed as a leader in reviving classic shows, at its new home in the heart of the Broadway theater district.

The Roundabout, the nation's second-largest nonprofit theater company, behind New York's Lincoln Center Theater, originally staged its plays in the basement of a Chelsea supermarket in the 1960s. Its new $25 million home is quite a step up. The new space is embellished with restored Italian Renaissance-style murals and lavish wreath moldings.

The most controversial aspect of the new nonprofit Roundabout theater centers on its corporate sponsorship. In addition to government grants and an increase in the number of season subscribers, the budget includes underwriting from American Airlines - $8.5 million of the overall $25 million cost - in exchange for the airline's name on the theater. Roundabout also plans to sustain its new home in part through season subscribers: The total has jumped from 17,000 in 1983 to the current 46,000.

Other companies have also joined in, including Nabisco, which gave $500,000 to have the theater's lounge named after it.

But some nonprofit officials have suggested that the Roundabout company has sold out. Todd Haimes, artistic director of Roundabout, defends the decision: "As long as the corporate sponsors are not interested in affecting our artistic decisions, I'm happy to have their participation."

Those artistic decisions so far have yielded 13 Tony Awards, stretching back to the 1985 Best Actress prize for Stockard Channing's performance in "Joe Egg"; Best Play for "Side Man"; best revival wins for "Cabaret," "A View from the Bridge," "Anna Christie," and "Joe Egg"; and several other Tony Awards for acting performances.

The theater has navigated some rough waters since its inception in 1965. At times, it presented plays in the Chelsea basement to audiences smaller than the number of actors on stage.

The itinerant group moved into a former movie house, weathered a bankruptcy filing, resumed operations in an auditorium at the Fashion Institute of Technology, settled for a time at the Union Square Theatre, a former union hall, and then took up residency at the Criterion Center complex in Times Square.

That era produced some of the group's most successful achievements, including Warren Leight's "Side Man," Arthur Miller's "A View from the Bridge," and the still-running revival of John Kander and Fred Ebb's "Cabaret." When threatened with a substantial rent increase or an eviction at the Criterion, the Roundabout decided to look elsewhere. The Times Square renovation project, six blocks away, beckoned.

The Selwyn Theater played host to some of the past century's most notable talents, including Cole Porter, Noel Coward, and Bea Lillie, but fell prey to the encroachment of movies and the darker elements that reigned in Times Square from the late 1960s until recently.

In 1918, New York architect George Keister had fashioned the Selwyn in the Italian Renaissance style, using scrolled modillions, stone balusters, and expansive glorious murals.

The remodeled theater follows the New Amsterdam Theatre across the street, home to Disney's "The Lion King"; the New Victory Theatre; and the Ford Performing Arts Center, all of which have been renovated in the last three years from abandoned theaters of the early 20th century.

One of the most striking features of the Roundabout's home is its seating plan. Tony Walton, who designed the set for "The Man Who Came to Dinner," has noted that "the distance from any one seat to the stage is much less than in many American theaters - it's the horseshoe effect, which you see more often in London's West End. So you feel a very close connection between the performer and those observing."

Roundabout theatergoers also will never be far from the action in Times Square. In the theater's penthouse lobby - a sleek 3,500-square-foot space on the top floor of the building - they can observe the passing Times Square scene below before curtain time and during intermission.

'The Man Who Came to Dinner' ends Oct. 8 at the American Airlines Theatre. The 2000-2001 season will include Eugene O'Neill's 'Desire Under the Elms'; Noel Coward's 'Design for Living'; Brian Friel's 'Faith Healer'; and the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical 'Follies.' For more information, log on to www.roundabouttheatre.org or call the box office at 212-719-9393.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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