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Gehry Banishes Off-Broadway’s Dreariness With Signature Center

The lobby of the Pershing Square Signature Center. The building was designed by Frank Gehry. Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg
The lobby of the Pershing Square Signature Center. The building was designed by Frank Gehry. Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

Feb. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Frank Gehry has built one of New York’s best new off-Broadway theaters, the Alice Griffin Jewel Box, as a scaled-down opera house.

It’s one of the three spacious yet intimate theaters Gehry designed for the Pershing Square Signature Center, a 70,000-square-foot complex tucked into the base of a behemoth residential tower west of Times Square.

Among the three, the Griffin especially offers a respite from Broadway’s preference for overamplified blare and Vegas stage tricks. Witness its production of Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot,” the sort of work that often ends up in a basement space with folding chairs and actors dodging water pipes.

At the Griffin, where the 199 seats arc in a cozy horseshoe, you could appreciate the two actors’ every whisper and facial expression from any part of the house. Yet there’s plenty of room for the actors to roam.

Related Companies, the building’s developer, made room for a full fly tower. It’s tempting to think of a musical or intimate opera in this room.

James Houghton founded the Signature Theatre in 1991, in a tiny 79-seat studio that he shared with calligraphy classes. Dedicating himself to the work of living playwrights, he has devoted seasons to Paula Vogel, Tony Kushner and Horton Foote, among others.

Gehry’s Roots

Gehry, 82, returns to the roots of his practice, conjuring cheerfully informal sculptured spaces in faceted planes of humble plywood. His firm worked with the New York architect H3 Hardy Collaboration.

He and Houghton first began discussing a venue that would rise on the site of the World Trade Center downtown. Years of delay and costs spiraling to $700 million put an end to that dream. Working within 70,000 square feet, the project came in at $66 million.

A stairway makes an angular pirouette as it brings patrons up from the street to an airy lobby with a ceiling of suspended overlapping plywood planes and ample room to mingle. Playwrights’ giant painted likenesses preside genially from high walls.

Such simple theatrical gestures avoid the ubiquitous tired industrial look of off-Broadway that makes theatergoing seem dutiful rather than exciting.

Going from one theater to three allows Houghton and executive director Erika Mallin to expand the resident playwright program to include five-year partnerships. A fundraising campaign led by actor Edward Norton keeps ticket prices at $25.

‘Hurt Village’

I stepped into the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, which looked like a candy-colored construction site. For Katori Hall’s “Hurt Village,” set in a doomed public-housing project, the set decorators created artful disarray inspired by the look of the theater before it was finished.

It is a high-ceilinged black box with a flat floor and seating tiers that can be configured in several ways, changing the audience’s relationship to the action. For Hall’s play, patrons sit on two sides facing the actors in the middle.

Overlapping plywood panels, suggesting a dislocated jigsaw puzzle, cover the side and back walls of the 299-seat End Stage theater. The architectural panels are stained brown near the stage, then fade to a natural red as they go back, blurring the boundary between stage and audience.

A sleek living-room set for Edward Albee’s “The Lady from Dubuque” suggests a chilly smugness about to be shattered.

With extraordinary acting and writing offered nightly on tiny stages all over New York, I wish they could all have rooms equal to the Signature’s.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: James S. Russell in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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