NEW YORK — While most entertainment companies are subject to the unpredictable rollercoaster of good and bad patches, this season’s turnaround at Manhattan Theater Club represents a reversal of fortune that’s remarkable.
After a tumultuous 2003-2004 season, the current term has been the nonprofit company’s strongest since its back-to-back successes in 2000 with “Proof” and “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.”
And aside from economic strength, it’s got several key bragging rights. With the early closing of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” there will be only two new American plays running on Broadway, “Doubt” and “Brooklyn Boy” — and the MTC flag is flying over both of them.
After scrambling to find a Broadway house, MTC’s Off Broadway hit “Doubt” has secured a berth at the Walter Kerr Theater, where it begins previews March 9 and opens March 31.
John Patrick Shanley’s play, starring Cherry Jones and Brian O’Byrne, is already touted as a frontrunner for Pulitzer and Tony attention.
Set in a Bronx Irish-Italian parish school in 1964, the suspenseful drama deals with a nun’s witch-hunt against a priest whom she suspects of having too intense an interest in a 12-year-old altar boy. Doug Hughes’ production received the most unanimously strong reviews from New York critics of any production this season.
“This is the seventh play we’ve done with John,” offers MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow. “It’s a testament to a writer who’s been unrelenting in his experimentation and in the range of his plays.”
The success of “Doubt” for MTC follows the company’s well-received revival earlier this season of Craig Lucas’ “Reckless,” which earned praise for Mary-Louise Parker’s perf as a flaky wife escaping from a contract hit ordered by her husband, and for director Mark Brokaw and designer Allen Moyer’s staging.
Perhaps the final blight of last season’s run of bad luck was last summer’s exit of Liev Schreiber from the leading role in MTC’s revival of Donald Margulies’ “Sight Unseen,” pre-production. (Ben Shenkman replaced him.) But the production was redeemed by glowing notices for Laura Linney.
Margulies’ new “Brooklyn Boy,” which opened Feb. 3, has drawn a muted response for its somewhat familiar dramatic fodder and predictable denouement, but earned unequivocal support for director Daniel Sullivan’s staging and for the strong cast led by Adam Arkin. The story of an author’s troubled return to his roots, the play is a natural for New Yorkers and box office has been solid.
“It’s too early to be definitive, but audience reaction has been extraordinary on this since previews, and the word of mouth has been great,” says MTC exec director Barry Grove.
“We’re not a commercial theater, even though our grosses are reported in the same column,” he adds. “We’re looking at a series of constituencies — our 22,000 subscribers, our donors, our board of directors — and we’re very happy with how we’re doing on that front.”
The company’s strength couldn’t be further from the string of disappointments that plagued MTC last season, the company’s first on Broadway. Every attempt to find a production worthy of MTC’s newly restored Broadway home, the Biltmore Theater, failed resoundingly, starting when Terrence McNally’s “Dedication” was dropped as the inaugural offering.
Its replacement, Richard Greenberg’s problematic period piece “The Violet Hour,” was plagued by last-minute casting upsets and a tepid critical response,particularly after Greenberg’s Tony-winning “Take Me Out.”
Some much-publicized friction between playwright Neil Simon and Mary Tyler Moore caused the star’s hasty retreat and cast a pall over MTC’s Off Broadway premiere of “Rose’s Dilemma,” echoed loudly in its dismal reception.
And the successor to “The Violet Hour” in the Biltmore, Regina Taylor’s contemporized, African-Americanized version of “The Seagull,” prophetically titled “Drowning Crow,” sunk quickly after some of the season’s most scorchingly negative reviews.
“There was a patch from October 2003 through to February last year when there was definitely a lot of weather,” Meadow concedes. “But we knew when we moved into the Biltmore that there’d be a period of adjustment. It was a very complicated start last season, but really, by spring, the weather had started to clear.”
Meadow likens the stormy spell to MTC’s transition in 1984, when the company moved after 10 years at its 73rd Street location to its Off Broadway home, City Center.
“Our first season there was not one of our finest,” she admits. “There’s a certain lack of predictability for any company doing new work and taking risks. If you look at our 30-year history, it’s normal.”
Grove adds, “On the one hand, we were about not changing our mission to continue to explore new work, but on the other hand, we were about adapting to a new situation, being in the Biltmore. You can’t do that until you’re there.”
The company’s primary relationships are with playwrights, doing multiple productions of works by Shanley, Margulies, Greenberg, David Lindsay-Abaire and Beth Henley, among others. First play announced for MTC’s 2005-06 season will be the world premiere of Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole,” the company’s fourth collaboration with the playwright.
“That has been a hallmark of this theater in terms of our artistic policy,” Meadow says. “We have made commitments to writers for the body of their work.”
“And the Biltmore allows us a platform to revive plays like ‘Reckless’ and ‘Sight Unseen’ that had brief runs earlier in the playwrights’ careers but never had the opportunity of reaching a wide audience,” adds Grove.
MTC also has been a home to top theater directors, including Hughes, John Rando and Christopher Ashley, who started as assistants on the company’s productions; and to accomplished designers such as Santo Loquasto, John Lee Beatty, Ann Roth and Jane Greenwood. Shanley, who has also directed his plays for MTC, was even a house manager at 73rd Street.
MTC will attempt to keep the momentum going this season with the opening March 29 of “Moonlight & Magnolias.” Meadow will direct the behind-the-scenes Hollywood account of the collaboration of producer David O. Selznick, director Victor Fleming and writer Ben Hecht on the screenplay of “Gone With the Wind.”
Completing MTC’s current season are John Tillinger’s staging of “A Picasso” by Jeffrey Hatcher (“Compleat Female Stage Beauty”), opening April 19 at City Center; and Elaine May’s new comedy, “After the Night and the Music,” with Sullivan again taking directing reins. Opening is May 19 at the Biltmore.