It's such a given fact of New York theatre life that we rarely discuss it: this is the only world cultural capital without a first-class, well-funded permanent repertory company.
One could argue that Broadway once served that purpose by accident, with great stars and great production teams routinely turning out viable selections from The Repertoire. But for all the carping about "revivals" on today's Rialto, let's not forget that most of these--if not imported from London--are threadbare, cynical exercises usually built around an ill-suited tv actor.
The Voice's Michael Feingold has been on this crusade from time immemorial. Here's a bit from his latest salvo, injecting some much needed historical perspective:
Apart from small and constantly struggling troupes like the Pearl, we have no resident theater company in New York, no band of artists prepared to test its mettle against classics and new plays in equal measure. Such companies have always had to fight for survival against New York's flood of marketing and fashion trends: Eva le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theatre was largely ignored; Orson Welles and John Houseman's Mercury Theatre succumbed to the lure of Hollywood; the APA found itself caught in the Broadway time-warp through its success with nostalgic Americana. None survived to become a permanent institution, but while they lived, they gave New York theater a substance and meaning that mere catering to the market could not provide. They also gave it Chekhov, Shaw, Molière, Pirandello, Marlowe, Giraudoux, Dekker, Ghelderode, Marc Blitzstein, Susan Glaspell, and George M. Cohan. And they did this, not as single elaborate events, but as what it is: the normal day's work of a theater.It's true, New York has never been particularly hospitable to a European-style (or even Ashland, Oregon style!) multi-stage permanent company. And I suppose commercial Broadway will always take up all the media oxygen and will always continue to allegedly be "synonymous" with American Theatre no matter how outdated a themepark it becomes. And when you can't beat Broadway for that attention and dollars, many nonprofits decide to effectively join 'em, by staking their fortunes on "enhancement" money and transferring to if not buying Broadway houses.
I don't claim that this is possible in our time. I do know that some small groups are trying it, and that its existence would benefit everyone involved: testing actors, challenging directors and designers, setting the bar high for playwrights to extend their reach. And I know, too, that if made affordable (but how?), it would benefit a New York audience that has long since given up going to the theater, an audience not interested in fighting its way through ill-mannered tourist crowds to see old musicals redone cheaply and stars that it can see for free (or the cost of a Netflix download) on its home screen. The audience is ready; the artists are ready. What will the theater do?
I've never thought erecting some contrived idea of a "national theatre" in a country with no "national" culture made sense. (And especially not in a city that, as we love to say, is an island off the coast of America.) But, as Feingold reminds us elsewhere in the article, we do already have the kinds of institutions in place that could do this in our larger nonprofits. There's still time for at least one of them to step up to this mission, should they choose it.