The Playgoer: Whither Manhattan Theatre Club

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Friday, May 08, 2009

Whither Manhattan Theatre Club

In reviewing Manhattan Theatre Club's latest offering in their Broadway mainstage house, a revival of a forgotten 1934 comedy Accent on Youth, Time Out's Adam Feldman doesn't waste time in getting right to the heart of the question on the minds of many obersevers of the NYC nonprofit scene:

What is happening at MTC? The company’s website bills it as “one of the only institutions in the U.S. solely dedicated to producing new plays and musicals.” But its Samuel J. Friedman Theatre began the season with the new-in-name-only To Be or Not to Be, adapted from the 1942 film; then came a revival of 1990’s The American Plan; and now this. When did the MTC’s mission become a nostalgia trip? Are its captains asleep on the job? With productions like this one, no one could blame them.
The Post's Elizabeth Vincentelli (on her new NY Post blog!) puts it even less "charitably," so to speak:

To say I didn't like the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of "Accent on Youth" is the understatement of the year. Adding insult to injury are a couple of innocuous lines about two thirds of the way down the cast page in the Playbill: "Manhattan Theatre Club productions are made possible in part with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency."
You know, if our tax dollars are going to help MTC mount this type of production, we should ask for some accountability in return. After all, if it's required of the auto industry, why not of our local not-for-profit theater institutions?
Myself I don't think Accent on Youth is that much a crime against the theatre. David Hyde Pierce is in top form, Byron Jennings and Charles Kimbrough are wonderful, and, at its best, the scipt plays like a perfectly charming Molnar farce or Lubitsch film. (Its author Samson Raphaelson was one Lubitsch's screenwriters of choice.) But for $100 a seat???

The truth is, Accent would be a perfectly fine choice in a rep theatre's second (or third) space. But MTC--despite the fact that, as Feldman points out, they're decidedly not a rep company--made an oddly fateful decision. They programmed this brittle trifle in their high visibility (and Tony-eligible) Broadway venue, while the play they imported from Chicago that would eventually win the Pulitzer--Ruined--got stuck in their Off Broadway "Stage 1". And there it remains, even after its sixth(!) extension.

In short, despite incredible buzz coming out of Chicago's Goodman, where the premiere was a box office phenomenon, MTC didn't know what they had.

Of course, we can ask whether Ruined--a sober drama by a nonfamous playwright about abuse of women in the Congo and with no star--would be well served on Broadway, its commercial potential so limited. But at least it would have been eligible for a Tony! Plus, at just 650 seats, MTC's "Samuel J. Freedman" (formerly The Biltmore) is only about twice as big as the 299-er Stage 1.

And, by the way, average attendance capacity for Accent at the Freedman last week? 49.3%. That's right, about 300 seats. So at least it seems Ruined couldn't do much worse.

(Even at Broadway prices, I would bet. Even Off Broadway, MTC is charging $75 for Ruined. With a $96.50 top, Accent is only $20 more, and with a $56.50 balcony option.)

I usually don't care a whit about a theatre's mission statement, but in this case it is indeed odd that a company so professly devoted to new plays and new writers would use their prime venue this season to dig up antiques. When they opened The Biltmore five years ago (at a great expense that plummeted the company into dire financial straits even before the recession), their justification was to bring the serious new American dramatic play back to Broadway. In other words, that's where those public funds were supposed to be going.

Everyone's allowed to fail. But I just can't help asking: wouldn't producing Ruined on Broadway have finally been the fulfillment of that stated mission?


Ken said...

As soon as I got the first postcard for "Accent on Youth" several months ago, I had a "WTF" moment. Manhattan Theatre Club is supposed to be doing new plays, and not only are they not putting good new work in their high-profile venue, they're filling that venue with a trifle that didn't exactly (as far as I can tell) shake up the theater world when it was new.
Hey, MTC, if you're desperate to do plays from the thirties, try an Odets play. That might have some real electricity to it, and might better speak to our troubled time than "Accent" can.

Playgoer said...

Ah Ken, you had me at "Odets."

Actually one more piece to this distressing puzzlie I forgot to mention--next season MTC will only be using 2 of their 3 spaces! And instead of giving up The Biltmore--which could rake in dough as a rental and would help them refocus on their core mission--they're leasing Space 2 out to The Pearl Theatre Company, a small classical rep.

To see how that affects next year's programming, see the new season:

(Hint: there'll be another 1930s comedy at The Biltmore)

Theater of Ideas said...

I hadn't heard about that development. Has the Pearl lost Theater 80 as its main venue?

Anonymous said...

If you knew what was going to be popular, you would make the match right every time. MTC offered a home to Ruined in New York -- that's a good thing. CAA could have insisted that their author go to a Broadway house. Maybe the author didn't want to debut in New York on Broadway? The show is brilliant. It is a monster hit in a small space, tucked under a really big space that does Broadway tryouts in the guise of glitzy concerts. I think it's exciting that it's such a hot ticket.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Hasn’t MTC always put on new shows and new playwrights alongside lesser-performed works by older playwrights? And don’t theater companies, regardless of their mission statements, have to balance making money by scheduling popular shows to make the money to spend on more adventurous ones? Also, might this year’s largely unimpressive season have something to do with the fact that the company’s artistic director Lynne Meadow was on sabbatical last year when the schedule was being put together?

Anonymous said...

RUINED is -- along with maybe a Charlayne Woodard play -- the only play I've EVER responded to at MTC. It really is a moribund little institution and I have no expectations of them whatsoever. That they even produced this play is an anomaly and a miracle - Accent on Youth and all these hideous revivals of second-rate plays seem more their thing.

Anonymous said...

Tickets for RUINED at MTC were $70.

Abigail Katz said...

It is unfortunate that Lynn Nottage's play can't be a Tony contender, which it would have been had MTC booked it in the Friedman. I'm fairly certain Nottage would not have objected. As for MTC's or any other non-profit's mission statement, we should care very much whether organizations adhere to them. These institutions are given tax-exempt status based on the notion that they are providing a public service. I agree with Elizabeth Vincentelli- if we demand accountability from corporations receiving tax-payer dollars, why should we not demand the same from non-profits? I'd love to know if the gazillion non-profit theatre companies in NYC alone actually do the work they claim to do. It may not be easy to determine, but I don't think it would be so bad for theatres to be on their guard...

Playgoer said...

Yo, Anon: maybe Ruined tix "were" $70, but right now, they're $75.

See here:

That's the official price, at least...

Anonymous said...

Either way -- $70 (a month ago) or $75 (post-Pulitzer?) - the point is: this is outrageous. To my mind, it makes much of the Bway/Off-Bway designation moot.