TheaTour!: The Mark Hellinger Theater

Mark Hellinger TheaterThe Mark Hellinger is the most beautiful theater on Broadway.

It hasn’t housed a show since 1989.

Sadness of sadnesses—I know. Despite this shockingly gorgeous interior…

Mark Hellinger Theater…despite this intricately designed and perfectly executed ornamentation…

Mark Hellinger Theater …despite this tremendously preserved craftsmanship…

Mark Hellinger Theater…despite all of this, the Mark Hellinger sees no dancing feet, no 11 o’clock numbers, no matinee ladies.

How can this be, you ask?

Once upon a dark time—the 1980’s!—the Nederlander Organization (then the owner of the Hellinger) leased, and in 1991 sold the space to the Times Square Church, which has operated the 1,600-seat jewel ever since. “It’s a question of economics,” Nederlander’s Arthur Rubin said at the time. “We can’t fill the theaters we have, and the city has not given us tax abatements when the theaters are dark.” With that, the one-time home of hits like My Fair Lady and Jesus Christ Superstar disappeared from the boards.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the Times Square Church has taken exquisite care of the space, and makes it open to the public. I took a self-guided tour between services on a recent Sunday and was thunderstruck at the theater’s glory.

Care to look around?

The theater’s plain exterior, on 51st Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue, belies the glories within.

Mark Hellinger TheaterMark Hellinger TheaterThere is one interesting outdoor feature, however. This fellow, one of a pair!

Mark Hellinger TheaterInterestingly, the theater’s entrance used to be on Broadway. But nowadays, entering on 51st, visitors enter into this blindingly beautiful lobby…

Mark Hellinger TheaterAbove everything hangs a chandelier…

Mark Hellinger Theater lobbyBut the true glory is inside, where the sumptuousness is unending. Click on the panorama below for a better view.

Mark Hellinger TheaterThe boxes are worthy of the world’s starriest celebrities, dignitaries and the like.

Mark Hellinger TheaterThe Hellinger is not without quirks, though! On the far sides of the house are narrow, two-seat rows. As beautiful as they are, they’re also kind of hilarious. “Enjoy your date in the privacy of your own row,” you imagine a box office guy telling a customer. “You’ll love it!”

Mark Hellinger TheaterBut these photos only hint at the thrill of seeing the space in person. Drop by some afternoon and bathe in the gold-leaf patina of it all. (The church’s hours and can be found HERE.)

As for whether or not the Hellinger will ever again house plays or musicals, a 2010 Playbill.com article says that the answer, for the forseeable future at least, is no. Ah well. One wishes that, back in 1989, a less theatrical space had been volunteered to the church (the Minskoff, anyone?) but such was not to be.

Still: At least the Hellinger still exists. Shines. Sparkles.

Mark Hellinger TheaterAll photos by theater-words.

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Favorite Moment: FUN HOME

Fun Home Public Theater Michael CerverisThere’s a lot to love about Fun Home, the hot new musical down at the Public Theater. It’s got great material, a talented cast, the most beautiful set in town, and—wonder of wonders—very few projections! So, picking a “favorite moment” here is a terrible, Sophie’s Choice kind of conundrum.

And yet… hard decisions have to be made.

But before that, some background: Fun Home tells the true, growing-up story of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, and is based on her fantastic graphic memoir of the same name. Both book and musical tell a swirling tale of family, growing up and sexuality. It’s deep, meaningful, fun stuff.

At the Public, three actresses play “Alison,” the narrator and protagonist. The eldest (Beth Malone) looks back at the story of her life by way of elementary- and college-aged versions of herself, played (perfectly) by Sydney Lucas and Alexandra Socha. Adult Alison struggles to reconcile her coming out and life-narrative with those of her father, a difficult, closeted gay man (Michael Cerveris).

The Three Alisons

The Three Alisons

My favorite moment of the show comes early, as adult Alison goes through an old box of heirlooms and, on the other side of the stage, child Alison does the same with her father and their own box. As Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron‘s wonderful musical plays, we gradually realize that the two boxes are, in fact, one and the same, here realized at different times in Alison’s life.

In an unobtrusive moment—one that could only happen in the theater—adult Alison and her father each reach into their respective boxes, and (cue the shivers) each pull out the same, silver coffee pot.

Incarnating this single pot twice, across decades, is a simple, Proustian way of saying everything about time, memory and history that no essay or description ever could. (Clearly, that’s not stopping me from trying!) Instantly, past is both infinitely removed and utterly of-this-moment; the object takes Alison back, but also emphasizes how far away that “back” is. I’m reminded of the wonderful line in The Glass Menagerie: “Time is the longest distance between two places.” Indeed—no more so than two places separated by a few feet of stage and a lifetime of experience.

This moment also illustrates unique power of simultaneous action, a device the theater shares with few other forms. Unlike a film, a play can stage two scenes and versions of the same character in direct physical proximity and have them interact. A few years ago director Michael Mayer spoke to the Times about this phenomenon in reference to his On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, praising it as “the beautiful theatrical gift of simultaneity.” Like Fun Home, Clear Day divided its protagonist between separate actors to (my opinion) brilliant effect, and thus let the audience in on a kind of dramatic irony: We got a perspective—wide, complex, funny—the characters never had, and got to see “self” interact with “self” in an imaginative, otherworldly and theatrical way. Fun Home does much the same, never more so than in this beautiful coffee pot moment.

Interestingly, simultaneity is also a prime feature of graphic novels, Fun Home’s form-of-origin. A caption “happens” alongside a picture; the resultant power can be in repeated emphasis (a picture illustrates what a caption describes), or in dissonance (a picture illustrates the opposite). Either way, the result equals more than the sum of the disparate parts.

In Fun Home’s coffee pot moment, the power is both one of repeated emphasis and one of dissonance: the pot, seen twice, shows how some things never change; Alison, also seen twice, shows how completely other things do.

Cool stuff. Cool stuff, indeed.

photos by Joan Marcus

Short & Sweet

Alice Munro

Alice Munro

Much of the buzz surrounding Canadian writer Alice Munro’s recent Nobel win came from her affinity for the short story, a form usually spurned as a kind of bastard stepchild of literature. Munro doesn’t write the long, drawn-out novels the Nobel committee (and many readers) generally prefer; her concise, concentrated narratives pack whole lives into paragraphs, sweeping movements into a few pages. The effect is often riveting and sort of eerie—at the end of a good one you think to yourself, how did she do that?—and so quickly! Munro’s brand of elegant economy isn’t usually rewarded, so her win here counts as a real achievement.

As in literature, the theater doesn’t generally hold brevity as a virtue. Popular marathon performances (Gatz, The Coast of Utopia, Life and Times) are extreme examples of a general bent: Ticket-buying audiences prefer like their theater served in hefty, 90-plus minute servings, thank you very much.

But there is real value—and fun!—to be found in much shorter pieces, plays no longer than 30ish minutes or so. I recently saw three such works in various stages of development under the collective title Ladder to the Moon at HERE, and stand behind their shortness: Size needn’t matter!

Ladder to the Moon Here Arts Center

The first of these playlets—Harold, I Hate You by Amanda Szeglowski—imagines a trio of Girl Scout-like gals traipsing through the woods, voicing their anxieties in counterpart to a disembodied voice in a tent. The girls’ worries run the gamut—they fret over everything from death-by-mulch-grinder to sleepover abandonment. Their movement is highly stylized and choreographed, as are their mostly expressionless, monotone speaking voices. Before you know it, the story is over… and the briefness of these collective conversations is part of what makes the play successful: Enhancement might’ve spoiled the creepy and anxious space so quickly conjured.

The second piece, Ghost Stories (a product of Tiny Little Band, Jerry Lieblich and Stefanie Abel Horowitz), also trades in the world of worries, this time through—duh—ghost stories. Three narrators beckon audience members onto the stage, gather them around small lamps, and tell spooky tales of the supernatural. We’re talking good old fashioned, gather-round-the-campfire ghost stories. There’s some commentary, but mostly it’s the scary goods told straight up… and it’s awesome. The simplicity of good storytellers telling good stories holds up spectacularly, and, because it doesn’t need to prop up a two-hour evening, can stay as spare as it needs to be.

Ryann Weir’s The Dinosaur Playthe final piece, tracks two disenchanted employees at a zoo. Layering on their depressing-beige uniforms, polishing visitors’ glasses and ultimately pausing for a treatise on dinosaurs, they wallow in the doldrums of their sad-sack lives. (In a particularly funny/sad moment, one employee explains why it’s “financially irresponsible” for the workers to stay in their low-paying jobs.) Again, the impact comes swiftly and needn’t wallow. Clarity comes in the quickly-formed setup, climax and resolution (such as it is) of the narrative.

One, twice, three times Ladder to the Moon proves you don’t need to drone on to make a point or an impact. In that spirit, I’ll stop now, toast brevity, and shut the hell up.

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