Theater's `bad boy' comes of age. Tony salutes avant-garde director Robert Brustein

FIRST Robert Brustein became known for decrying Broadway's ``philistinism'' in print. Then he was back in the limelight for taking public swipes at that darling of the Western art world, the London theater. Later, in one of the most public brouhahas in theater history, he was ousted from the deanship of Yale University's School of Drama.

But at last night's Tony Awards, televised nationally from New York, Dr. Brustein was hailed by his peers as one of America's leading theater artists. The artistic director of the six-year-old American Repertory Theatre (ART) here in Cambridge received the theater's version of an Oscar for outstanding regional theater.

The 40-year-old Tonys, that grande dame of New York theater awards, have for the past several years been saluting the nation's leading regional theaters. Recent recipients include Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater and the Actors Theatre of Louisville. While Brustein's ART was clearly the hands-down winner for this year's award, the theater remains one of the most unorthodox members of that relatively placid movement.

Piloted by Brustein, the ART has emerged as the only regional company staging equal measures of classical and experimental work -- usually in the same production -- while at the same time maintaining an audience.

This year's ART season included a world premi`ere opera by avant-garde composer Philip Glass, a revival of a 17th-century drama, and an experimental version of Euripides' ``Alcestis.''

Through it all, the theater played to a better than 90 percent capacity. Newsweek magazine called the ART ``the most audacious of any theater in the country.''

Does the bad boy of American theater, now more elder statesman than enfant terrible, realize the ART's good fortune?

``Of course everything is subject to change, but right now we at the ART are living in the best of all possible worlds,'' said the mustachioed director in an interview at the theater's offices a few days before the award ceremony. Attired in de rigueur Cantabrigian tweed jacket, resting one Reebok-shod foot on the coffee table, Brustein was doing what he has long done -- assessing in no uncertain terms the present state and future of American theater.

``Right now the theater has everything going for it in terms of a genuine renaissance,'' he said, his lanky frame folded into a canvas chair. ``We have never known more first-rate artists entering the field than right now.

``I'm very ambivalent about the award,'' he confessed. ``I'm very proud of the theater, but for the past 20 years I've been a critic of the Tonys as stimulating that lust for celebrity and stardom that is antithetical to the theater.''

Brustein's is an artistic creed fashioned by years of viewing the theater from a rare perspective -- as both an artist and a critic. The recipient of a PhD in English from Columbia, Brustein is an actor by training and a scholar, critic, and director by profession.

His early and often caustic theater criticism in The New Republic earned him the nod in 1966 from Kingman Brewster, then President of Yale University. Brustein's 13-year tenure as the dean of the drama school established both the university and the director as leading forces in American theater.

The listing of Yale graduates during his reign, including actress Meryl Streep and playwright Christopher Durang, reads like a Who's Who in American theater.

After the well-publicized split between Brewster's successor, A. Bartlett Giamatti, and Brustein in the late 1970s, the director and company folded their tents and decamped to Harvard. Despite the ART's relatively short tenure here, the theater has far surpassed its earlier reputation in New Haven. In six years, the company has earned an enviable critical record and bank account.

The recipient of both a challenge grant and ongoing ensembles grant from the National Endowment for the Arts -- the latter based on competition not only against theaters but also other arts organizations -- the ART has generated a Pulitzer-winning drama (Marsha Norman's `` 'Night, Mother''), helped groom a handful of Broadway productions (including last year's Tony-winning musical, ``Big River''), and mounted the only American production of Robert Wilson's controversial ``the CIVIL warS.'' The ART regularly earns the attention of the nation's major theater critics.

Through it all, Brustein has persisted in tilting at as many theatrical windmills as he can find.

In addition to the ART directorship, he lectures on modern and post-modern drama at Harvard and continues to write criticism for The New Republic, as he has done on since the 1950s. He also has written five books on theater, including the recent ``Making Scenes,'' his reminiscence of the turbulent Yale years.

Despite his many hats, Brustein's unflagging devotion to his company remains primary. He is an indefatigable cheerleader for the resident ensemble theater -- a long cherished ideal among European theater troupes but a relatively new idea in America.

``It is a failure of imagination on the part of the American public not to recognize it has stars in its midst . . . . But the eye of history will look back and see those [regional] theaters that managed to keep the artist at the center of their organizations,'' he says.

Brustein holds his own 55-member company to an artistically rigorous code of new plays, neglected works from the past, and classical plays done in new ways. This latter category is most dear to the director's heart.

``I've always tried to put [innovative] directors together with those classic texts,'' says Brustein. ``I have always loved those great plays.''

First at the Yale Repertory Theater and now at the ART, Brustein has consistently invited such directors as Lee Breuer, JoAnne Akalaitis, Robert Wilson, and Andrei Serban to tackle plays by Genet, Beckett, and Gozzi.

The resulting ART seasons, clearly a reflection of their artistic director's sensibilities, are admittedly an acquired taste, but one that local audiences and national critics find hard to ignore. Brustein himself suggests that his controversial approach to classic drama, technically referred to as ``deconstructionist,'' is the wave of the future. ``Right now there is a competition between the auteur director and the playwright; the director is not interested in working with plays by new writers.''

It is a trend that he says has as much to do with the recent wave of Romanian directors, Andrei Serban, Liviu Ciulei, Lucian Pintilie, with whom Brustein has worked, as it does with the changing nature of the avant-garde.

``The American avant-garde is no longer a political movement but solely an aesthetic and metaphysical one,'' Brustein says flatly.

Such statements, along with his aggressively nontraditional productions, have, not surprisingly, earned the director his detractors, most notably, the Nobel Prize-winning playwright Samuel Beckett, who two years ago threatened to sue Brustein's company over its production of his play ``Endgame.''

More recently, New York Times theater critic Frank Rich wrote, ``The problem may be the ART acting ensemble, which not for the first time, seems unequal to this company's high artistic ambitions.''

Another observer recently suggested, ``Brustein loves to pretend that his personal taste is a big movement in American theater.''

But Brustein, typically unfazed, says, ``If we've done anything here [at the ART], it's to establish a model, that if you stick with [your artistic goals] and the audience perceives that commitment, you'll come through.''

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