Dynamo director fires up Boston

Interview / Nicholas Martin

If a director is best introduced through his work, then Nicholas Martin, the new artistic director at the Huntington Theatre Company, has made a strong first impression. Mr. Martin has burst on Boston with an impact akin to the booming cannon, ringing bells, and fireworks that mark the finale of the annual Fourth of July concert by the Charles River.

An award-winning director in New York, who has staged landmark premires of many plays, Martin has launched his first season at the Huntington with a memorable production of "Dead End," a nearly-forgotten American classic from 1935 by Sidney Kingsley.

Brooklyn-born and raised, Martin brings a tone of high energy and intense involvement with contemporary playwrights to the Huntington. "A lot of my friends thought I was crazy to leave New York because I have a flourishing career as a director," Martin says. "But I was on the phone 10 hours a day, with no support.... I was seeking a quiet lifestyle in a city I love, near the water. The only surprises [about Boston] are how long it takes for everyone to make changes and how hard it is to get a cab," he says.

The theater that Martin inherits is a highly regarded regional playhouse with a loyal base of 18,000 subscribers. It was founded in 1982 by Peter Altman and Michael Maso.

During its first 18 years, the theater (affiliated with Boston University) won many prizes for its excellent productions of the classics and new plays, particularly fostering the work of Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson.

Altman announced his resignation a year ago to become director of the Missouri Repertory Theatre in Kansas City, while Maso remains as managing director. His help has eased the transition for Martin into the responsibilities of running a theater with a staff of nearly 75, a schedule of six plays this season, and an extensive education program.

But Martin has made his considerable reputation directing plays and intends to stage at least two productions a year himself at the Huntington - unlike Altman, a backstage administrator who did not work directly on the shows. Martin will bring in various directors to take on the others.

New works interest Martin the most. For example, last year's New York premire of Christopher Durang's "Betty's Summer Vacation" won him one of Off-Broadway's highest honors, the Obie Award for best direction. He also has extensive experience with the classics, particularly Shakespeare.

"Dead End," which has been extended through Oct. 15, is a complex drama set on a street of tenement houses that edges the East River piers in New York. With its cast of more than 40 actors and a setting that juxtaposes the city's slum streets with the rear entrance of an exclusive apartment house, "Dead End" is seldom revived because few theaters have the resources to mount it.

Martin first staged the play three years ago at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Mass., where he serves as resident director in the summer.

The central characters are a group of six teenage boys, the Dead End kids, who use the street as their front parlor to escape the squalor of the tenement apartments where they live.

The boys tease and wisecrack, connive to commit petty thefts, and cannonball into the filthy river to escape the heat (the orchestra pit is filled with a pool of water and front-row patrons get splashed during the show).

The boys also confront their future in two adult men, "Baby Face" Martin, a murderer, and an out-of-work architect, Gimpty. The rich folks who come in and out of River House complete a mosaic that contrasts the frivolous "haves" with the dreams of the "have-nots."

After the premire of the play on Broadway in 1935, and the 1937 movie of the same name, the characters of the "Dead End" kids became famous as the protagonists of a series of films that chronicled their adventures.

Martin has cast the play brilliantly, engaging a number of actors from the lively Boston theater community along with some from New York, a switch for the Huntington, which seldom auditioned locally in the past.

The towering, 40-foot-high setting of tenement buildings, flanking the art deco River House, designed by James Noone and lighted in the flat, unforgiving tones of an Edward Hopper painting by Kenneth Posner, gives added weight to the central theme of the significance of the surroundings in shaping, or deadening, the lives of the children.

Produced when America was struggling through the Depression, "Dead End" acted as a powerful goad to government officials to make changes in their approach to low-income housing.

Fiorella LaGuardia, New York's mayor from 1933 to 1945, issued a statement deploring the conditions depicted in the play after its opening. President Franklin Roosevelt appointed a slum commission to study the effect tenement-living had on its unfortunate residents.

Another classic play that Martin intends to mount at the Huntington is Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" which he directed at Williamstown this past summer.

But Martin's chief interest is developing new playwrights. He's been promised a second, smaller theater for experimental productions of their works. The second theater is now in the planning stages in the city's South End neighborhood.

"Part of the reason I've come here is the promise of the new theater space," he says. "I want to do more dangerous work."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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