Buzz Comes Back To the Public Theater

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Can the Public Theater be saved? That question had loomed over Lafayette Street for so long that no one seemed to bother asking it anymore. The long shadow of Joseph Papp, its founder, had disappeared behind a succession of second-rate productions and mega-misfires, mostly under the aegis of the then-artistic director George C. Wolfe — a worthy director (at times) but unworthy successor to the role. Where audiences had once flocked for the crazy, brilliant mix of avant-garde Shakespeare and alt-rock musicals, they avoided in droves. The lobby of the Public Theater, once buzzing with excitement, now reeked of disappointment.

As I watched Mr. Wolfe’s 2005 mounting of “This Is How It Goes,” the star-studded production of Neil LaBute’s then-latest mediocre meditation on the evils that men do, I wondered if its title stood more as metaphor than anything else. This is how it goes when theater companies get desperate: The Public Theater needed Ben Stiller and Amanda Peet to draw people in to its meager offering, and the movie stars needed the LaBute name to justify their presence on a tiny off-Broadway stage, even one as once celebrated as the Public’s Anspacher Theater. The work of overrated playwrights wasn’t going to turn things around for a company that had once so dominated the New York cultural scene. With productions like that, it seemed possible that the Public Theater might never recapture its original spirit, and would instead shovel the ill-considered work of Mr. LaBute — who, after a rousing start to his career, has lately taken to writing bad plays with alarming frequency — at subscribers too weary to complain.

But with quiet determination to rid the Public Theater of its weary addictions, the new artistic director, Oskar Eustis, in less than two years on the job, has done the unthinkable: He has made it relevant again. Over the last three months, Mr. Eustis has delivered two productions to the New York theater that bring to mind the heights of Mr. Papp’s inventiveness, the range of his vision, and his passion for fresh, diverse voices. And the energetic executive director of the Public, who came in 2002 from the Ford Foundation, Mara Manus, has managed to keep the doors open long enough for light to finally shine through.

In May, a single-syllabled guitarist named Stew created a heartfelt yarn of a young American songwriter that did more to reinvent the form of musicals than a dozen road-show productions of “Spring Awakening” will ever accomplish. Getting the sort of New York Times salute reserved for Pulitzer Prize winners and musicals about roller-skating, “Passing Strange” had the look and feel of something lasting and profound; its unknown writer-performer told his life story in such unexpected rhythms that it took my eyes and ears a while to accept the reality that Stew was a star.

And then — just weeks later — the Public returned to its roots with a Delacorte Theater production of “Romeo and Juliet” that knocked audiences back with its freshness. It had been years — seriously, years — since so many audience members had walked out of Central Park buzzing with pleasure from the simple experience of seeing Shakespeare done right. (I remember the rush of excitement I felt several years ago when a sudden rainstorm saved me from the second act of a dreadful 1990 Delacorte staging of “Richard III” with Denzel Washington.) The luminous Lauren Ambrose and the hit-and-miss Michael Greif found common ground in this most simple of stories, and knocked it out of the park. Anyone who didn’t feel the emotional burn in that production needs a refresher course in romance.

The announcement this week of the Public Theater’s 2007-2008 season suggests the strong possibility that these events aren’t coincidental. Mr. Eustis has gathered the talents of top playwrights who haven’t been under the Public Theater roof for more than a decade — Sam Shepard, Caryl Churchill, and David Henry Hwang — and all with American premieres of plays brimming with possibility. It was Mr. Papp who helped promote Mr. Shepard’s career in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was burdened with being America’s most promising playwright; this Western-themed venture into Beckett-style surrealism from the Abbey Theater in Dublin (with Steven Rea starring) will mark Mr. Shepard’s first Public Theater production since 1994’s “Simpatico.” Mr. Eustis has gathered three gifted actors — Brian Dennehy, David Strathairn, and Maria Tucci — to star in Richard Nelson’s “Conversations in Tusculum,” set just outside Caesar’s Rome.

And in a conscious, renewed embrace of the avant-garde, Mr. Eustis will bring the Wooster Group under the Public Theater’s roof for the first time for a “Hamlet” production. It’s an act reminiscent of Mr. Papp’s hiring of the brilliant, eclectic Joanne Akalaitis, who directed inspired interpretations of “Henry IV” parts I and II before he mistakenly entrusted her to be his successor at the helm of the Public. She lasted 20 months before Mr. Wolfe replaced her.

Mr. Wolfe, the Tony-winning director of “Angels In America,” focused too much of his attention on bringing Hollywood celebrities to the Public stage, and too little on maintaining the diversity and cacophony of its offerings under Mr. Papp. Now, with Mr. Eustis firmly in charge and in its 51st year, the Public has finally shuffled off its mortal coil and given us, if not the promise, at least the hope of great things to come.

The New York Sun

© 2024 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  Create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use