Most drama at Lincoln Center theater has been offstage

The current dispute over the immediate future of the Vivian Beaumont Theater is the latest reminder of an embarrassing fact: The playmaking entity of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts can't seem to get its act together.

As a result, the theatrical capital of the United States continues unable to sustain a drama-producing group to take its place alongside the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Ballet, the New York City Opera, and the other prestigious institutions whose acreage it shares.

With its propensity for offstage drama, the Beaumont has lately figured in the following sequence of events:

July 20. In the absence of chairman Jerome L. Greene, the board of trustees of the Lincoln Center Theater Company (which operates the Beaumont) renewed Richmond Crinkley's $50,000-a-year contract as executive director, even though Mr. Crinkley's current contract still has several months to run. Mr. Greene has since resigned from the board, as have W. Barnabas McHenry, president of the theater company, and Peter Jay Sharp.

Aug. 24. The board of directors of Lincoln Center, the ''landlord'' of the complex, barred the theater company from receiving Lincoln Center funds to which it would normally be entitled and from using the name Lincoln Center. (The action was endorsed by the other constituents.)

Sept. 12. The Beaumont trustees appointed a committee to represent its interests to the Lincoln Center board. In a notably tart reply to various allegations by Beaumont board spokesmen, Lincoln Center board chairman Martin E. Segal stated: ''When our board of directors meets on Oct. 17, we will be happy to consider any suggestions that will put this entire regrettable experience to rest.''

At the heart of the controversy is the activity - or lack of it - at the Beaumont. The 1,100-seat main playhouse and the 299-seat Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater have been dark for five of the past six years. Mr. Crinkley and his board insist that the Beaumont's first priority should be a multimillion-dollar renovation which will enlarge the theater to 1,200 seats, replace its thrust stage with a proscenium stage, and improve acoustics and sight lines. It is the strong opinion of the Lincoln Center board that the theater group should first articulate an artistic policy and fulfill the terms of its lease by resuming play production as soon as possible.

In the meantime, Broadway producer Alexander H. Cohen has rented the theater for the New York engagement of the Peter Brook version of Bizet's ''Carmen,'' due to open Nov. 15. The question arises: If the Beaumont is adequate for Mr. Brook, why can't Mr. Crinkley and company use it at least until funds are in hand for the planned renovation?

As always in such controversies, each side makes its own particular arguments. Mr. Crinkley points out that the Lincoln Center board has given encouragement and blessing to the Beaumont renovations. But the Lincoln Center board has expressed doubts about the ''bankability'' of some of the funds pledged - not to mention the funds in hand - for the physical overhaul of the Beaumont.

The Beaumont has had an unhappy history of trouble with successive theater boards. Robert Whitehead and Elia Kazan, co-directors of the two-year Washington Square preparatory phase, resigned even before the company moved to Lincoln Center in 1965. Mr. Whitehead and Mr. Kazan were succeeded by the late Jules Irving and Herbert Blau, two young theater men from San Francisco. With the resignation of Mr. Blau, Mr. Irving carried on alone.

After some faltering early steps, the Irving administration began creating a sense of momentum and accomplishment that grew increasingly impressive as the Lincoln Center Theater Company moved into the second half of its first decade. In the middle of the 1972-73 season, Mr. Irving sought funds for an experimental series in the little Forum Theater (later rechristened the Mitzi E. Newhouse). The board refused and Mr. Irving resigned. When his trustees thus shortchanged the Beaumont, they dealt Lincoln Center's play-producing group a blow from which it has never recovered.

Mr. Irving was followed by Joseph Papp. Mr. Papp's first-season policy of abrasive new plays alienated many of the middle-brow, middle-class subscribers whose loyalty Mr. Irving had won. In the second season, a policy of staging revivals didn't turn the Beaumont situation around. Mr. Papp complained that the Lincoln Center operation was eating up too much profit from ''A Chorus Line,'' his Broadway musical hit, which he was plowing into the Beaumont.

Mr. Crinkley was appointed executive director in 1978. He had previously served as longtime producer of Washington's Folger Theatre Group, as assistant to Roger L. Stevens at Kennedy Center, and as executive director of the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA). (In 1979, he would produce ''The Elephant Man.'')

With its new executive director, the Beaumont announced a new gimmick: a directorate of six associates: Sarah Caldwell, Liviu Ciulei, Robin Phillips, Ellis Rabb, Woody Allen, and Edward Albee. With respect to the arrangement, Variety, the entertainment trade paper, commented:

''The overwhelming economic problems of the operation have resisted solution, mainly because the various boards of directors responsible for fund raising have consistently failed to supply sufficient capital to permit artistic growth. It is unanimously assumed in the legit community that the composition and size of the new artistic 'directorate' are intended in part to serve as a magnet for subsidy, especially private arts philanthropy.''

According to Mr. Albee, the directorate never met.

The first Crinkley season consisted of ''Macbeth,'' staged by Miss Caldwell; ''The Philadelphia Story,'' directed by Mr. Rabb; and Mr. Allen's ''The Floating Light Bulb.'' The season received mixed notices. The Beaumont closed on June 21, 1981, and has remained dark ever since.

Time was when the Beaumont's difficulties might have had a dampening effect on the expanding institutional theater movement. Fortunately, that is no longer the case. Yet in this era of performing-arts complexes, no theater is an island unto itself. Theater at Lincoln Center has made little positive contribution to a nationwide movement.

Even today, the Beaumont is by no means a lost cause. But as an institution, it is still a theater in search of itself - in search of an identity and of a sustained, agreed-on policy.

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