New artistic director recaptures fest's old buzz

NEW HAVEN, Conn. The first call Nicholas Martin made when he was named a.d. of Williamstown Theater Festival last fall was to Blythe Danner.

Since the 1970s, the actress has been an esteemed presence at the summer theater festival, even bringing daughter Gwyneth Paltrow into the family of performers, directors and designers who have regularly found an artistic home in the Massachusetts Berkshires.

Martin wanted to signal to Danner — and others — that this theater-family tradition would continue. 

After all, this is where Martin himself developed as a director, helming some of Williamstown’s hits that have moved on to other venues, including the Rialto: “Hedda Gabler,” “Dead End” and “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.” Last summer’s WTF success, “The Corn Is Green,” starring Kate Burton and her son Morgan Ritchie, will transfer to Boston’s Huntington next winter — and there is “Green” Gotham interest as well.

To many observers, Martin was an obvious choice when actor-director Roger Rees ankled the Williamstown a.d. position last fall.

Though Rees inherited the use of a new theater complex by Williams College (which has turned its facilities over to the festival every summer for more than 50 years), WTF saw increasing competition in the area. Barrington Stage’s new home and musical programming in Pittsfield, Shakespeare & Company’s expanded facility in Lenox, and a starrier Berkshire Theater Festival in Stockbridge all took focus away from the once-venerable fest.

When the WTF board began the search for Rees’ replacement, it decided to turn to one of its own: Martin, who was exiting his a.d. post at the Huntington Theater Company.

“I told the board I was not interested in fixing what was not broken,” says Martin.

When it came time to choose his first slate of shows for the festival’s two stages, Martin turned to his — and Williamstown’s — theater pals: Burton, Richard Easton, Theresa Rebeck, Michael Greif, Joe Hardy, John Rando, Campbell Scott, Paxton Whitehead and Dana Ivey, among them.

Martin will make a fast exit from Beantown on June 1, taking with him two Huntington colleagues: general manager Gilbert Medina and associate a.d. Justin Waldma. Peter Dubois, a resident director at Gotham’s Public Theater, succeeds Martin, who will have the fuzzy title of a.d. emeritus.

Martin opens WTF’s four-play mainstage season with a transfer of tuner “She Loves Me” — his last show as a.d. at the Huntington. Greif continues his WTF run of Chekhov plays with “Three Sisters.” John Rando helms a new David Ives adaptation of George Feydou farce “A Flea in Her Ear.” The series will end with David Storey’s “Home,” helmed by Hardy, and starring Easton,  Whitehead and Ivey.

The second stage will open with a still-to-be-determined show — Martin says he wants Burton and Hope Davis to star in a Christopher Durang play, either “Beyond Therapy” or “Baby With the Bath Water,” in a co-production with Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, N.Y.

Also on tap at WTF is the world preem of Rebeck’s  “The Understudy,” starring Julie White. (Rebeck’s “Mauritius” preemed last year at Huntington before moving on to Broadway.) Also slated is a new play from Chicago’s Steppenwolf, “Harriet Jacobs,” by Lydia Diamond; and Ronan Noone’s  solo show “The Atheist,” a work that had a short run last fall at the Huntington with Scott, who returns to the role at WTF.

Martin says he wants to end his first season with a new play at the Nikos Stage, a place he hopes will be a home for young directors.

But Martin’s energies are not directed only at WTF. He will stage Paul Rudnick’s quartet of short plays, “The New Century,” at Lincoln Center this spring, starring Linda Lavin, Jayne Houdyshell and Peter Bartlett.

In September, Martin is also set to revive John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves” for L.A.’s Center Theater Group, now headed by Michael Ritchie, who ran the WTF prior to Rees.  Also on tap for the 2008-09 season is a transfer of Martin’s hit Huntington production of Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter,” starring Victor Garber.

As for Danner, Martin says among the projects she is eyeing is the Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin-Moss Hart musical “Lady in the Dark.” He’s also hoping to entice Rees to return as director.

It’s all in the family.

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