Mint director sees good in the old

Neglected works topline NY theatre

NEW YORK — “I just read plays,” shrugs Jonathan Bank by way of explaining his job.

In truth, it’s a little more complicated than that. Bank is a theatrical resurrectionist: His New York-based company, the Mint Theater, specializes in unearthing and staging “neglected but worthy” works, earning it the benevolence of orgs such as the Tony Randall Theatrical Fund, which just handed the theater $100,000 toward its next production.

The pedigree of plays produced there may be part of what attracts funders to the Mint, which operates a 99-seat Off Broadway house on 43rd Street, just west of the theater district’s heart.

The company’s next show, opening Sept. 24, is Tolstoy’s “The Power of Darkness,” written in 1886 but initially banned in Russia because of its horrifying climactic scene and not produced until a decade later. Before that, there were forgotten plays by literary sorts such as A.A. Milne, D.H. Lawrence and J.M. Barrie.

Few of the plays at the Mint have been performed in New York before, and none in recent memory; some have never been performed in the U.S. And some, like next year’s “The Fifth Column,” by Ernest Hemingway, have never been performed at all.

Long before David Mamet’s recent adaptation made Harley Granville-Barker’s “The Voysey Inheritance” a hit for the Atlantic, the Mint staged the corrosive play’s belated New York premiere in 1999, a mere 95 years after it was written. The theater again had a success with an extended run earlier this year of the playwright’s “The Madras House.”

The Mint also drew critical kudos for its 2005-06 season entirely devoted to the work of overlooked American women playwrights, including Dawn Powell’s 1931 “Walking Down Broadway,” Rose Franken’s 1944 “Soldier’s Wife” and Rachel Crothers’ 1937 “Susan and God.”

Bank took over the Mint in 1996 and added a sentence to the theater’s mission statement that would serve his interest in “stuff nobody had ever heard of.”

“To a great extent, the audience — but also the press — were saying, ‘This is a really valuable thing you’re doing,’ ” recalls Bank of his first year. “And I was like, ‘Oh. Really?’ I was doing what was interesting to me — I wasn’t trying to provide a service.”

At the beginning, the Mint was barely able to pay wages.

“Seven years ago, we were doing showcases, so the actors were working for car fare,” says Bank. “The amount you can charge for a ticket is capped, and the number of performances you can do is capped. Our ambition was to professionalize — to make sure that actors were on contract. And then, once you’re putting actors on contract, you can charge whatever you want, and you can perform as long as you want.”

By the time the Mint achieved that goal, the theater had gained a steadily growing following. Recently, it has even received invitations to apply for funding. Between its 1999-2000 season and this year, the Mint’s operating budget has grown from under $200,000 to a respectable $1.2 million — a good size for the theater, and one that serves Bank’s interests, which do not include becoming the next Roundabout or Manhattan Theater Club.

“I’m not interested in building an institution,” Bank says flatly. “I want to build a legacy, and the legacy is the plays — plays that we are hopefully bringing new life to or restoring. I’m more interested in four theaters around the country over the next three years doing a production of ‘The Return of the Prodigal.’ ” Bank directed that forgotten play by St. John Hankin in May to critical acclaim.

Since there’s a general disinterest in non-canonical plays from the past, Bank knows he can’t sit around waiting for other theaters to come to him.

The Mint has a small publishing operation that produced a general anthology (“Worthy but Neglected,” Granville, 2002) and several books of plays by writers whom Bank hopes will receive greater attention.

“What I’m trying to do, with the help of a grant we got last year, is to get the books into the hands of people who might produce or study the plays,” he explains. “So we’re going to get them out to university libraries and regional theaters and theater departments at colleges.”

So where does Bank dig for all this gold? Do the people at the New York Public Library call him by his first name?

“They do,” he admits. “That’s kind of a kick.” As to how he finds the work, Bank claims he’s just cherry-picking — many of the plays were successful in their day, he points out, and are just as good now.

But the Mint a.d. is being modest. “The Fifth Column,” for instance, isn’t exactly part of the canon.

“I was leafing through the illustrated history of the theater guild,” Bank explains. “I saw Hemingway’s name, and I said, ‘What’s this?’ ” Bank found that while the politically controversial play had been poorly adapted by Benjamin Glazer, Hemingway’s original had sat on the shelf for 70 years and had never been performed. “Maybe that’s not cherry-picking; it’s really just taking the book off the shelf.”

That may be true, but Bank is one of the few artistic directors for whom taking an old, obscure book off the shelf is an enterprise exciting enough to be addictive.

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