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A design for giving, anyone?

The Donmar Warehouse, the adventurous London studio theater whose acclaimed productions include “Translations,” “Assassins” and last season’s “Design for Living,” risks closure as a producing venue next spring unless it can find alternate funding – specifically, an annual subsidy of some £ 300,000-£ 350,000 ($465,000-$542,500).

The news comes as the 252-seater, under 30-year-old artistic director Sam Mendes, launches a season of work of particular interest to Americans. Now through Nov. 5 is a revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” starring Zoe Wanamaker as Amanda. In December comes the first major London revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” with Adrian Lester as Bobby. Mendes directs both productions in what marks a renewed commitment to his home theater following his foray last year into the Cameron Mackintosh megamusical, with “Oliver!” at the London Palladium.

But “Company” could be the Donmar’s last production if money cannot be found to put the theater on a financial par with comparable venues like the Almeida, the Young Vic and the Hampstead, which collectively get $1.76 million in subsidy. Since Mendes inaugurated the rebuilt theater in October 1992 with the British premiere of Sondheim’s “Assassins,” the theater has lost money – an estimated $395,000 – in its first and third financial years. That it broke even the second year was due to $125,000 from Carlton Television as part of an annual sponsorship deal ending Dec. 31; and a $62,000 profit on Mendes’ production of “Cabaret,” with Alan Cumming, which played to 106% of capacity (including standing room) during a 16-week run.

The result has been a theater playing to an average 72% attendance over three years – with best results, perhaps inevitably, on musical revivals “Cabaret” and “The Threepenny Opera” (the latter averaging 96% over 15 weeks); at best, as the system now stands, the theater can only break even. The breaking point has been building over the past year as Mayfair Theaters and Cinemas Ltd., the Donmar’s owner, realized it could not indefinitely absorb the theater’s shortfall. The Donmar, in turn, has reflected the difficulty by mounting fewer inhouse productions, from five the first season to four the second and three the third.

The present crisis “should have been obvious from the outset,” Mayfair chairman Roger Wingate told Variety, adding that, “what we probably thought was that we could build a theater and that the production side would fund itself – that it could get by on private commercial sponsorship.” Why, then, wasn’t subsidy sought from the start? Says Wingate: “Nobody was going to take on a new client ex initio.” In other words, Mendes’ Donmar had first to prove itself before it could demand a share of an already overextended government purse.

That the theater has done so is beyond doubt. Indeed, its current “Glass Menagerie” revival opened Sept. 13 to virtually ecstatic reviews, brisk box office and a hefty advance nearing $80,000; the production is set for an immediate West End transfer in November, produced by Thelma Holt.

While there have, to be sure, been aesthetic lows – Michael Frayn’s terminally arch “Here” and Terry Johnson’s faux-Stoppardian revival of his own play “Insignificance,” among them – its highs remain unarguable. Would Brian Friel’s extraordinary “Translations” have received as sensitive a revival done straight on the West End, instead of at the Donmar where, without stars, it played to 84% capacity? Unlikely. The same is true of Sean Mathias’ controversial deconstruction of “Design for Living,” which played to 86% at the Donmar only to move to the West End and prove one of producer Bill Kenwright’s more sizable losses. Best of all was Matthew Warchus’ reappraisal last fall of Sam Shepard’s “True West,” with Michael Rudko and Mark Rylance nightly swapping roles.

As a home to important visiting companies, the Donmar is also crucial. “Maria Friedman by Special Arrangement,” Jonathan Harvey’s “Beautiful Thing” and Jonathan Lewis’ corrosively moving and funny “Our Boys” – this year’s best new play to date – all used highly praised Donmar runs as springboards to the West End, the screen, or (in the case of “Beautiful Thing”) both.

Some feel the Donmar could, as a full-time receiving venue, provide exactly the Off Broadway-size house for commercial runs that central London lacks. But Mendes is not convinced: “I think you’re throwing the Donmar away to use it as a potential West End-type house which could run one show, and one show only, for maybe two years; it’s a destruction of a creative space.”

“We could have run ‘Cabaret’ for a year, but you cannot pay the actors $400 for a year,” Mendes continues. “If you run it as a commercial theater, you have to pay commercial rates. You’re up to $2,325 a week because that’s the going rate, and that’s when you immediately shoot yourself in the foot.”

On a rolling contract at least through next fall, Mendes has numerous plans for the theater, money permitting. Among shows on tap are his delayed production of “Hamlet,” with Simon Russell Beale, whom he has directed as Richard III and as Ariel in “The Tempest”; Katie Mitchell’s staging of “The Mysteries”; Mendes’ own revival of “The Front Page,” with Steve Coogan; and Warchus directing the National Youth Theater in “Merrily We Roll Along.”

For 1995-96, the Donmar is projecting operating costs of $1.1 million, including $77,500 for advertising and marketing that does not exist in the current budget. Assuming income of $387,500 in box office revenue at a continued 70% capacity and $155,000 in sponsorship and fundraising, the theater is left with a shortfall approaching $550,000 which must be met.

“We’ve fought a valiant battle,” says Mendes, “and I think we’ve proved that the work here is worthy of financing. I am willing to sit at any table with anyone and argue that this theater does some of the best work in London. If London wants this theater, somebody’s got to help me fight for it.”

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