The Playgoer: another small theatre closes

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Thursday, June 01, 2006

another small theatre closes

Playhouse 91 was an oddly shaped space in an unlikely neighborhood for theatre--the Upper East Side's Yorkville. AKA, one of the last rent stabilized neighborhoods in Manhattan. Hence, AKA, where I live! For the last two years I have actually groaned whenever I passed and saw the words "Menopause: The Musical" on the marquee. This used to be the home of the Jewish Repertory Theatre in the 90s, and hosted the premiere of several Athol Fugard plays, as well as the recent hit The Syringa Tree.

I suppose I got my wish when "Menopause" finally went into forced retirement a few weeks ago. But in a classic case of "be careful what you wish for"... the theatre is now closing for good. Add that to the shuttering--in just this last year--of the Perry Street in the West Village and the Variety Arts in the East Village and you have a trifecta of doom for commercial off-Broadway.

Playhouse 91 is a particular shame since, unlike its downtown counterparts, it was the only theatre space in the neighborhood. While it may have seemed to producers that only the "Menopause" audience would come, a more enterprising impresario might have developed the space to cater to all the recent college grads who flock to both the low rents and to the bars there. Instead, this former stable and ice-house on a secluded side-street will probably become luxury lofts or a parking garage. (More about the space and its history in today's Arts Briefly, scroll down.)

Before you conclude old spaces need to make room for new ones, things don't seem to be doing much better at the space formerly known as Dodger Stages--the underground "multiplex" on West 50th that was supposed to revive Off-Broadway in a shiny new setting. Well, in less than two years it just may have bankrupted the Dodgers who have been bought out by a conglomerate, who has taken over the still half-empty space under the name New World Stages. (Not to be confused with the coffee chain. Though there's a thought.)

The lesson is clear: Off-Broadway (i.e. 499 seats or less) is increasingly unprofitable. Other than the "Menopause" brand of nondramatic "diversions" (a club that includes "Tony & Tina's Wedding," "I Love You You're Perfect", etc--will someone please come up with a name for these?) the only theatres that size that survive are nonprofits. Even that other, more successful multiplex, Theatre Row, actually is a nonprofit presenting house, though most people don't realize it. (It's a subsidiary of the 42nd Street Development Corporation.)

And take Red Light Winter. While I didn't like it, it was enormously praised (Pulizter nomination, Obie citation) and presumably popular with the downtown crowd thanks to its graphic sex and debauchery and hipster cast. It was co-produced by Scott Rudin in a commercial run at the Barrow Street, a house which producer Scott Morfee turned into an Off-Broadway hitmaking machine with Tracy Letts's Killer Joe and Bug. Red Light Winter just announced its closing there after a respectable--but probably not profitable--four month run.

This is telling, tangible proof that serious theatre--the kind that will never succeed in bigger houses--is now officially a nonprofit business. And without subsidy and/or generous philanthropy it will simply die in this city.

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