By Peter Filichia
Perhaps MCC Theater should return to its original name.
In 1986, NYU grads Bob LuPone and Bernie Telsey decided to start a theater troupe which they dubbed Manhattan Class Company. Soon after, William Cantler helped to make the theater a not-for-profit; he became an associate artistic director and then co-artistic director with the two founders.
Some seasons later, they went acronymic and starting using the name MCC.
Considering the handsome brand-spanking-new and, yes, classy The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space which the company has just had built, the noun “class” is most apt and should be more often used.
Wednesday, Jan. 9 saw an official balloons-dropped-from-the ceiling debut at 511 West 52nd Street. What’s called the Newman Mills Theater rather resembles The Diamond, the largest theater at the Signature, with its very wide stage and auditorium.
The Newman Mills, however, has a little mezzanine, too, which holds 50 of the playhouse’s 245 seats.
As advertisers are wont to say, “And that’s not all.” There’s also the Susan and Ronald Frankel Theater, which is a black box that will accommodate 100 spectators in flexible seating.
Among those who spoke on Inauguration Day were that initial trio, who are still the scene.
A successful triumvirate?! That must be a first. Even if it isn’t, who’s going to bet that there have ever been three artistic directors who have stayed put for this length of time?
In the original production of A CHORUS LINE, LuPone played Zach, a pretty tough character. Here, when LuPone was delivering his speech about MCC’s history and on how long this day was in coming, he suddenly began crying. When Cantler’s turn came to speak, he too elevated himself to tears.
Yes, elevated to tears. Why do we say that a person who cries has been “reduced to tears”? I prefer elevated. Tears come when we simply can’t find words that are strong enough. LuPone and Cantler couldn’t, although they had their notes right in front of them.
Said Telsey, who settled for looking just a little misty-eyed, “We’re unpacking our boxes for the friggin’ last time.”
Considering that 97% of theater companies don’t last a decade, there must have been times in the past 32 years when these three were ensconced in their own beds, wide awake at four in the morning, looking at the ceiling, wondering and worrying if their company could possibly survive.
Even if it did, would they ever see it have a home of its own? MCC probably moved twice as many times as ONCE UPON A MATTRESS ever did. For the last few years, it had been in residence at the venerable Lucille Lortel Theatre, which was nice. But everyone wants to own rather than rent. And don’t new homeowners often shed tears of joy when that dream comes true?
Well, as Shakespeare wrote in JULIUS CAESAR, “If you have tears, prepare to share them now” (although in a very different context).
Not that you’ll probably ever see The Bard’s works at The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space. The company is much more interested in new plays and musicals.
As a result, this very week the Frankel will debut Loy A. Webb’s THE LIGHT, about a couple very much in love that suddenly isn’t. It’ll have a good opportunity to find an audience because it’s been given a two-month run. That’s very generous for a new play in a black box.
Next week the Newman Mills sees the debut of ALICE BY HEART, a different take on Lewis Carroll’s famous Alice – set during the London Blitz when Alice doesn’t descend into a rabbit hole but into the underground tube (read: subway station) as British citizens were forced to do during World War II.
ALICE BY HEART is the newest collaboration between composer Duncan Sheik and librettist-lyricist Steven Sater, who wrote the Tony-winning SPRING AWAKENING. This time, Sater has collaborated on the book with Jessie Nelson, who’s directing, too.
For ALICE BY HEART, MCC will be offering $30 front-row as well as accessible seats on line. The same offer will be made for all Newman Mills shows.
And who knows? Maybe one or both of these new works will be revived next season. That’s what happened to Joceyln Bioh’s SCHOOL GIRLS; OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY. MCC’s first airing of this drama in 2017 was so successful that it met a delightful fate that plays seldom experience in the not-for-profit theater world: SCHOOL GIRLS was revived the very next year.
Bioh was on hand to inaugurate the new theater complex. “I’m very happy for my three white uncles” she said before expressing her anticipation in “all the ways this space will change the world.”
It wouldn’t be able to change the world if the city hadn’t greatly helped. Everyone on stage, including executive director Blake West, board chair Susan Raanan and board member Peter Hedges thanked New York for its $28.9 million contribution.
Those of us interested in the arts are glad to see our tax dollars going for so worthy an enterprise. So we greatly applauded two city representatives: Tom Finkelpearl, the Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner, and Lorraine Grillo, Commissioner of Design and Construction.
Finkelpearl said that some years ago when he came to MCC to see a play, he had recently learned that he had lymphoma. And wouldn’t you know the play’s plot concerned cancer? And yet, Finkelpearl swore, the play wound up being a boon “because there is some sort of humor you can get about cancer.”
Yes, maybe art can’t totally heal, but it certainly can help. And that brought to mind a play of 20 years ago that Manhattan Class Company was willing to do when no other New York theater dared to take the risk: Margaret Edson’s WIT which taught many of us that Stage Four Cancer means no Stage Five.
WIT had had successful productions at South Coast Repertory and Long Wharf, but Manhattan Class Company put the show on the dramatic map. As a result, Edson received every prize known to off-Broadway shows as well as the Pulitzer.
(Lord knows how many artistic directors chose not to even look at it when they heard that it was written by an elementary school teacher. So much for “Those who can’t, teach.”)
Anyone who doubted the devotion of MCC’s triumvirate had to be taken with actress Julianna Margulies. She came to know the company in 2002 when she starred in its production of INTRIGUE WITH FAYE.
What astonished her, Margulies said, is that at least one of the artistic directors would show up at each and every performance of the play. Such dedication made her jump at the chance to be part of the board when she was courted to do so.
Grillo said that she felt a little out of place because “my job usually means speaking to first-graders.” Okay, but in a way, she still was: The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space is of the first grade and its artistic and financial advisors are, too. We now have a bit more heaven in Hell’s Kitchen.