Review: ‘An American Theater: The Story Of Westport Country Playhouse’

The sylvan setting in the Connecticut countryside. The old wooden barn down among the apple trees. The pretty ladies in their summer dresses. Would the Westport Country Playhouse have earned its fabled place in theater history if it weren't so picturesque?

The sylvan setting in the Connecticut countryside. The old wooden barn down among the apple trees. The pretty ladies in their summer dresses. Would the Westport Country Playhouse have earned its fabled place in theater history if it weren’t so picturesque?

Pegged to the venerable Playhouse’s 75th anniversary and coinciding with the reopening of its historic facilities after a $30 million renovation, this well-organized and richly illustrated tome pays fitting tribute to the Connecticut summer theater Lawrence Langner built in 1931 out of frustration with his strong-willed producing partners in the Theater Guild.

Autocratic by nature, Langner acquired the smelly old barn, at one time a tannery, and turned it into his personal fiefdom, a theater showplace where, as he put it, “I did not have to be subservient to the wishes of five other collaborators.”

Right from the start, Langner knew the formula he wanted: a 499-seat house (modeled on “the toy theater of my youth”); a stage built to the exact dimensions of a Broadway house (to facilitate those commercial transfers he was counting on); a 12-week season of eight or more shows playing in repertory; a balanced bill of American and European classics, challenging new plays and crowd-pleasing comedies; and a resident company headed by bankable stars.

From these hugely ambitious and anything-but-humble beginnings, the playhouse went on to become a summer theater unlike any other on the straw-hat circuit, largely due to Langner’s prodigious efforts and sterling connections.

Having established itself at the outset as a Mecca for stars on the lofty order of Paul Robeson, Laurette Taylor, Ethel Barrymore and Eva Le Gallienne, the playhouse attracted the great names of every generation. The roll call is just too staggering to single any out. But names are indeed named in this history, a mother lode of backstage stories.

Over the years, the barn was buffeted by the same ill winds that blew down other people’s houses. But with its unique weatherproofing — its Theater Guild ties, primarily, but also its proximity to Broadway and its vast Fairfield County network of wealthy, theatrically connected supporters — the playhouse had special resources to weather the storms.

In the beginning, when new plays were needed, Langner went first to good friends Eugene O’Neill and George Bernard Shaw, just as subsequent administrations would hit up A.R. Gurney. During the Depression, when auds were migrating to the movies, Langner wooed them back with film stars like Henry Fonda, Frances Farmer and Tyrone Power. When TV started taking a bite, James B. McKenzie, who took over from Langner in 1959 and ran the theater for the next 41 years, welcomed Jean Stapleton and Cybill Shepherd. And while other theaters had their society ladies to whip up subscriptions, Westport’s formidable subscriber list (90% filled by the end of the preceding season) was overseen by the wife of the state’s own governor, who later became U.S. ambassador to Spain.

So, while the history of the Westport Country Playhouse might very well reflect the broad trends that shaped the American theater over the greater part of a century — the main point of the introduction contributed by Joanne Woodward (artistic director of the Playhouse since 2000) and Paul Newman — there was never anything typical about the plushly appointed barn theater with the cocky rooster as its logo. From the time it opened with headliners like Dorothy Gish, Otis Skinner and Jesse Royce Landis, it was always the summer stage of the theatrical aristocracy. It still is.

An American Theater: The Story Of Westport Country Playhouse

Yale University Press; 304 Pgs; $39.95


By Richard Somerset-Ward; Foreword By Joanne Woodward And Paul Newman
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