July 29 (Bloomberg) -- I’ve been thinking about the problematic Vivian Beaumont Theatre ever since June 30, when a commercial booking called “Ann” -- about the straight-shooting Texas governor Ann Richards -- finally gave up the ghost after nearly four months of sparsely attended performances.
Eero Saarinen’s magnificent 1,100-seat house is the flagship of Lincoln Center Theater. Overlooking the serene reflecting pool surrounding Henry Moore’s “Reclining Figure,” it maintains a low profile in the shadow of its monumentalist neighbors, the Metropolitan Opera and Avery Fisher Hall.
To a degree we can compare LCT with London’s National Theatre -- though its support from federal and local government is less than 1 percent of its $36.5 million budget.
That may be one reason why LCT’s programming over the last few years has been a hodgepodge of home-grown productions and shows brought in to pay the rent.
Tellingly, “Macbeth,” which starts at the Beaumont on October 24 with Ethan Hawke in the title role, marks the first play that the company has produced on its own there in the nearly two years since John Guare’s ballsy “A Free Man of Color” closed in January, 2011.
In the interim, there’s been “Ann,” along with dark months and, of course “War Horse,” co-produced with the National Theatre and a consortium of commercial producers.
“War Horse” was a long-running hit that was bound to lose steam eventually -- and it did, closing several months earlier than expected.
It seems the company wasn’t prepared. So “Ann” was booked to cover staff and operating expenses, Andre Bishop, the artistic head of Lincoln Center Theater since January 1992, told me.
The Beaumont is officially a Broadway theater, with the concomitant expenses. When “Ann” closed early too, the Beaumont ended up dark for three-plus months.
The company’s two smaller venues, meanwhile, were busy presenting remarkable work.
Below the Beaumont is the 299-seat Mitzi E. Newhouse, where Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” opened. It subsequently transferred to a conventional Broadway house and won the Tony Award for best play.
The even smaller Claire Tow, a 112-seat jewel box atop the Beaumont that opened just one year ago, had another triumph with the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Disgraced.”
LCT also opened two more shows -- a revival of Clifford Odets’s “Golden Boy” and Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Nance” starring Nathan Lane -- directly on Broadway, with the company’s 30,000 members offered the same lower ticket prices as uptown.
When “War Horse” opened, even those of us who liked the show wondered why an import from London was getting a showcase in one of America’s premiere nonprofit houses.
Bishop insists the show was no mere rental.
“‘War Horse’ was absolutely a partnership,” he told me. “A great deal of work was done on the text, it was much darker and quite different from London. It was also 20 minutes shorter.”
That doesn’t seem like much to me, but the management of the National presumably agreed: LCT owned 40 percent of the Beaumont production.
The key challenge of the Beaumont has always been a configuration that has daunted every producer in charge since the theater opened in 1965.
“It’s not ideal for a lot of contemporary plays, American plays -- those one-set family dramas or farces,” Bishop said. I do remember shows -- a long-ago revival of “The Philadelphia Story” for one -- in which the fine actors traversing its football-field-size stage were defeated by the expanse. But there have been plenty of triumphs as well, including Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” and Guare’s “Free Man.”
In fact, I thought Richard Nelson’s marvelous “Nikolai and the Others,” which opened in May, ought to have been done in the Beaumont rather than the Newhouse.
Set on a rural Connecticut estate in the late 1940s, when Russian emigres were remaking America’s theater and dance worlds, the show had a large cast and set, both of which seemed squished on the Newhouse stage.
Bishop originally planned to present “Nikolai” in the larger theater, but Nelson argued for the intimacy of the Newhouse. (I was surprised the playwright held so much sway in the matter, but after a reading, Bishop says, he agreed.)
Surely another factor was that a show at the Beaumont costs between $2 million and $3 million to mount, more than twice the cost of the Newhouse and a fraction of the Tow.
In the past, LCT has presented shows that ran for a long time right there in its own theater, adding substantially to the company coffers.
“Contact” ran two years, five months; “South Pacific” almost that long, while “Anything Goes,” “Six Degrees of Separation” and “Light in the Piazza” each ran more than a year.
“One might argue that part of your mission, no matter how you define it, is to keep your flagship under full sail,” said director Gregory Mosher, who ran LCT prior to Bishop and generally supports letting homegrown hits run in the Beaumont.
“There’s nothing at all wrong with a subsidized theater’s running a production for a long time,” he said. (Both “Anything Goes” and “Six Degrees” were produced by him). “When you run a theater, the only thing that matters is whether you’re honoring your mission.”
After “Macbeth,” LCT will present the world premiere of “Act One,” James Lapine’s adaptation of Moss Hart’s celebrated autobiography. That combination of a classic and a new work seems just about right.
Bishop has done a fine job balancing economic need, at a time when public subsidy is shamefully dwindling, with artistic adventurism.
On the other hand, “War Horse” -- unlike, say, the fully reimagined “South Pacific” -- was someone else’s discovery. It could have been mounted in any Broadway theater.
Given the abundant talent available, the Beaumont shouldn’t be a safe house. Or a rental house, either.
No more “Ann,” please.
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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