Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Edie Falco and “Glee” star Jonathan Groff mingled with the moneyed class last night at a fundraising gala outside the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park before a performance of “The Merchant of Venice” starring Al Pacino.
About 780 guests, many from the worlds of performing arts and financial services, raised $1.4 million for the Public Theater, which puts on free Shakespeare each summer in the park as well as a full slate of shows throughout the year at its theater in downtown Manhattan.
The company will distribute 80,000 free tickets to this summer’s shows, which include “The Winter’s Tale” in rotating repertory with “Merchant.”
Andrew Hamingson, the Public’s executive director, told the crowd that the money raised would not only cover the 80,000 Shakespeare freebies but also 100,000 free tickets to other shows at the Public.
The annual al fresco gala is a celebrity draw -- Bette Midler, Kevin Spacey, James Gandolfini and Sam Waterston were among those who attended this year.
The crowd dined on salmon, beef and salad catered by restaurateur Danny Meyer on the grassy area outside the theater while listening to speeches honoring Bernard Gersten, the executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater and a former associate producer of the Public, and Rena DeSisto, global arts and culture executive for Bank of America Corp. the corporate sponsor of Shakespeare in the Park.
The bank has underwritten Free Shakespeare in the Park for the past four years and DeSisto said it would do so again next year.
“Bank of America has been unbelievably consistent in its support,” Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, said in an interview before the show. “They know they are not giving to the Public, they are giving a gift to the people of New York City. That’s in the Public’s DNA -- to reach as many people as possible.”
Actors expressed their admiration for the Public’s programming and desire to perform Shakespeare in Central Park.
Groff, who starred in past productions of “Hair” and “The Bacchae” at the Delacorte, said in an interview that the Public is “such an incredible bubble of creativity. There’s no other place like it.”
Schreiber, a Public Theater board member, said in an interview that he discussed with Eustis the possibility of doing a Shakespeare role at the Public -- and was interested in “Merchant.”
“Oskar had to say, ‘Um, sorry, that’s spoken for,’” Schreiber said.
The actors were quick to reveal their favorite Bard roles. Schreiber cited Coriolanus in addition to Shylock. Kate Walsh, a star of TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” said she would like to play Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Falco demurred, saying she might prefer to stay in the audience since “there are so many actors who are so good at Shakespeare, I think I would prefer to let them do it.” Nevertheless, “Merchant” ranks as one of her favorites, she added.
During the dinner, Warren Spector, the Public’s chairman of the board and a former co-president of Bear Stearns, said $30 million of the $35 million needed for a renovation at the Public’s Lafayette Street building has been raised. Groundbreaking was in March.
Eustis and Hamingson said that despite the weak economy, fundraising has remained strong, especially among individual donors. Hamingson said board members were asked to raise $9 million (either by donating themselves or getting others to open their checkbooks) for the capital campaign, and so far have given $7.5 million.
Following the three-hour performance, Pacino posed outside the theater for photographers, even briefly removing his dark glasses, before being whisked away by security. Many of the stars celebrated into the late hours with the acting company at an after-party in the Belvedere Castle, on a rocky promontory overlooking the empty Delacorte.
“The Merchant of Venice” and “The Winter’s Tale” run in repertory until Aug. 1. Pacino stars only in “The Merchant of Venice.” Information: http://www.publictheater.org; +1-212-967-7555.