A Public Meeting on the Future of the Provincetown Playhouse

The fate of a venerable venue hangs in the balance

The Provincetown Playhouse has witnessed quite a lot of controversy. The storied MacDougal Street theater has shocked and delighted audiences with world premiers by the likes of Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee, David Mamet, and a long-running performance of Charles Busch’s Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. This month, however, when NYU announced plans to tear down and redevelop the building in which the theater resides, the hullabaloo concerned not the plays on the Provincetown Playhouse stage, but the fate of the stage itself. Letter-writing campaigns launched; a Facebook group entitled “Save the Provincetown Playhouse” gathered members.

Yet a new plan released by NYU on May 16 may signal a détente between the university and the theater’s defenders. This plan calls for the razing of most of the building at 133-139 MacDougal Street, but preservation of the façade of the theater as well as “the exact volume and footprint” of the theater and its four structural walls. NYU has said it will also retain “relevant historical features and pieces of the existing theater such as the seats.” At 6:30 p.m. on May 28, at 40 Washington Square South, around the corner from the theater, Community Board 2 plans to host a public meeting to discuss the future of the playhouse. NYU and Community Board 2 will arrange for various academics to visit the theater before the meeting and determine precisely what historic features remain.

The Provincetown Players, one of the most influential American stage groups, opened their 140-seat Provincetown Playhouse at 139 MacDougal Street in 1916. In their inaugural season, the Players staged works by founders O’Neill, Susan Glaspell, and others. In 1918, they moved to a slightly larger theater at 133 MacDougal. The original Players stayed until 1922. Subsequently, the theater existed primarily as a rental venue. It hasn’t lodged a major commercial production since 1990. NYU acquired the building in 1984, and currently uses it for educational programs and youth theater, as well as events sponsored by NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

A series of renovations—the most recent carried out by NYU in the early ’90s—have left the Provincetown Playhouse with little that O’Neill or even Busch would have recognized. Debate remains about just how many traces of the theater’s other incarnations remain. But Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, contends that “a ton” of historic elements persist. (Berman favors preserving not only the theater and these elements, but the whole of the building, a proposal which at present seems unlikely to succeed.)

Just what will be saved and what will be jettisoned remains ambiguous. “We’re trying to be both sensitive and creative, but we want to make sure we have a working theater,” says NYU’s Alicia Hurley, vice-president for government affairs and community engagement. She thinks the internal theater will require substantial rebuilding. The current theater has some “real quirky flaws,” says Hurley, citing visible duct work and a steep rake. Of course, some artists quite like those quirks, such as the stage’s tiny size. In a widely circulated letter, director Robert Brustein, who performed at the Playhouse in 1949 wrote, “a postage[-size] stage can still be hospitable to great art.”

The meeting on May 28 should help clarify the university’s intentions. Brad Hoylman, the chairman of Board 2, says that after walk-throughs of the space, NYU will present its plans, board members will ask questions, and NYU will respond, after which the floor will be opened to the public. He remains optimistic about a compromise between NYU and the theater’s defenders: “I think—I hope—that the meeting may be an anticlimax.”

 
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