Saturday, February 25, 2012

Theodore Mann and Journeys in the Night

I posted this originally on Jan. 30, 2008. Theodore Mann died Friday of complications of pneumonia. He was 87.

Theodore Mann has plenty of showbiz stories to tell. Since starting Circle in the Square in 1951, he has presented more than 200 productions, received 14 Tony nominations, plus the Tony for best play for his world premiere production of “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” He has worked with George C. Scott, Geraldine Page, Jason Robards, Peter Falk and many others. He offers his memories of those decades in the new book Journeys in the Night: Creating a New American Theater with Circle in the Square. He shared some of those stories with our Dutch Treat Club yesterday at the National Arts Club.

It all started in an abandoned dance hall in the Village that was “like a little Greek theatre.” The first production, “Dark of the Moon,” had more actors than audience members. But “I’m the kind of person that when I start something I finish it,” Mann said.

He’s also the kind of person to seize opportunity. The first review of a Circle production was by “New York Times” critic Brooks Atkinson. It was eight inches long and said “it’s hot,” explaining that the theatre space was too warm. Mann turned the comment into an ad, quoting just that part of Atkinson’s review, as if the show were a hit. Unfortunately, the “Times” refused to run the ad.

But success followed. “Summer and Smoke,” starring a young Page, got great reviews, ran for a year and launched Page’s career. In time Scott would play there; it was at Circle that he met Colleen Dewhurst.

Mann also had his eye on another young actor he had seen Off-Broadway. “I want to find a play for him,” he said about Dustin Hoffman. But Hoffman didn’t respond, heading out to Hollywood instead. Years later Hoffmann told him why: “I thought you guys were trying to pick me up.”

Up until 1956 it has been “a roller coaster ride” -- a success followed by several failures. But then Mann considered taking a chance on Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” which had been a failure on Broadway. “If we were going to go down, it would be like the Titanic. We’d go down big.” Robards had already been cast in the play, but had a higher vision for himself. “I gotta do Hickey,” he told Mann. “He was very wired up and obviously had had a few drinks.” But when he performed one of Hickey’s monologues, “I got chills down my back,” Mann said.

Jose Quintero, who was directing the production, also was impressed. He later called Robards, who was living in the meat packing district, and asked for Hickey. “That’s how he heard he got the part,” Mann said.

They weren’t the only ones impressed. Robards’ performance also opened another door for the fledgling theatre. O’Neill’s widow contacted Mann about doing the premiere of her husband’s most autobiographical work, “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” on Broadway. Dressed all in black, including dark glasses, she was “very tempestuous and mercurial.”

Mrs. O’Neill had chosen wisely. The production was so powerful that at first the theatre was silent after the show ended on opening night. Then the audience burst into applause. “It was a great thrill for us,” Mann said. The play went on to win a Pulitzer and the production many Tonys. “O’Neill’s reputation was revived and he was hailed as the greatest American playwright.”

And Circle in the Square is still producing Broadway hits, the latest being “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which closed Jan 20 after three years. This is the Circle in the Square I’ve always known, in the midtown, downstairs space on 50th between Broadway and Eighth. Even before I lived in New York I knew and loved this theatre. My friend Karen Murphy Jensen and I always tried to get tickets there when we visited NYC. It’s where I first saw Kevin Kline on stage in a Shaw play, “Arms and the Man,” I think. As Mann says: “It’s still like a Greek theatre, with the audience all around.”

I agree with him that part of what makes that theatre so special is “the intimacy of being close.” It was the perfect place to create a beach for Tina Howe’s “Coastal Disturbance.” That’s probably the biggest set I ever saw there; the simplest may have been for “Frozen.”

It was clear listening to Mann that he had many more stories to impart than we had time for. Luckily he’s written them down so they’ll never be lost. His book is about more than just one theatre; it’s about all those people who brought it to life, and who went on from there to bless so many people with their gifts.

Nice job, little Greek theatre.

No comments: