Classic Act


When Classic Stage Company announced last month that Uma Thurman would be joining the cast of The Misanthrope—following CSC’s sold-out run of Godot with John Turturro, Tony Shaloub, and Christopher Lloyd—it seemed as if the theater’s new artistic director had burst in with a movie-star strategy.

No, there’s a good actor strategy,” retorts a very tickled Barry Edelstein, CSC’s new head. Edelstein coproduced Godot with outgoing CSC chief David Esbjornson, but The Misanthrope, which starts performances January 28, will be his first solo effort.

The celeb casting makes perfect sense, he explains, because Thurman plays an American starlet visiting England, where this production is set. But how did he get her?

“Asked.” Edelstein erupts with a short, satisfied laugh.

Star plot or not, CSC’s booming box office has Edelstein seeing a brighter financial picture than he was looking at before the season’s start. Back then, the director—whose 1997 revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons won a Lucille Lortel Award and Drama Desk and Drama League nominations—was busy figuring bulk postage rates and hitting up friends for funding. Now it should be easier for him to pursue his new plans: an art gallery in the lobby, readings on Monday nights, and a new play with “classic values” that will run late nights and “stretch the theater’s boundaries.” Helping him as producing director is Beth Emelson, Bernard Gersten’s longtime assistant at Lincoln Center.

Many people in the theater community are convinced the 33-year-old director is perfect for the CSC job. “It’s the right time for him,” Esbjornson notes. “He’s gone on record the last few years making classics his first love.” Rosemary Tishler, artistic producer at the Public, has watched Edelstein rise from his position as dramaturg at her theater years ago. “He’s gonna make the theater a player in New York,” she predicts.

Slim and tailored, with neat bangs atop rimless specs, Edelstein shows off his newly constructed loft office. He’s quietly determined to have things his way. The Shakespeare professor and former Rhodes scholar exudes a far different aura than he did four years ago, when his Merchant of Venice opened at the Public. He seems less idealistic now, more artfully political—not the manic, longhaired director who gesticulated wildly while rhapsodizing about close textual analysis. That younger Edelstein defied the critics, and dreaded them—as it turned out, with cause.

“Having The New York Times delivered before coffee and seeing yourself kneecapped was painful,” he says ruefully, recalling reviews of his Merchant. “But those people who told me it would toughen me up were right.”

Between that qualified debacle and the Miller coup, Edelstein directed almost nonstop. When he finally took a breath, it was to ask himself: “‘Now what?’ I had raised my profile. I knew all the artistic directors and had plays I wanted to do. But I still had to find a theater to do them in.”

When Esbjornson quit in March 1998, Edelstein’s agent called him and ordered, “Get that job.” With a nod from Arthur Miller, the board interviewed him and delivered a challenge: “This place has been here 30 years. Why should it have a 31st?”

Edelstein’s passion for the classics supplied the answer, from his beloved Shakespeare to plays barely 50 years old, like Godot. Simply staging these plays would not be enough for CSC, he insisted. “The play has to communicate in an entirely different cultural context from the one in which it was created, which often means reimagining it.”

The Misanthrope, which Edelstein is directing, features a new adaptation by playwright Martin Crimp. “It’s a dazzling display of wit, like reading Oscar Wilde with four-letter words.” He recites a few rhymed couplets, noting that Crimp pairs “fucked it” with “deconstruct it,” “ratio” with “fellatio.” Crimp also transposes the play to modern-day London, illuminating what Edelstein calls “the weird cultural relationship of England and the U.S. and their addiction to all things American.”

New translations are critical to Edelstein’s vision. Language is the center of a classic play, he declares, and talented contemporary playwrights—especially Americans—are needed to create it for classic works. “My fantasy,” Edelstein says, eyes alight, “is to have Paula Vogel translate Brecht.” He also wants to use dance or music to reinterpret the classics, as in Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, a dance-theater adaptation choreographed by Annie-B Parson scheduled for March.

Though CSC will continue to stage classics, classics, classics, Edelstein will make changes. “I want to do bigger plays with bigger casts,” he declares with a hint of his former outsize enthusiasm. “Shakespeare and plays of the English Renaissance like The Optimist. I’m desperate to do Othello, but you’ve got to have at least 16 people—and that’s only if the garrison at Cyprus is severely undermanned.”

Just now, Edelstein is exultant about The Misanthrope, and not only because of Thurman and Roger Rees, who’ll be playing Alceste. Before taking his new job, he’d shopped the play to nearly every major nonprofit in town. “For one reason or another they all said no,” he relates with relish. “But now I have a theater and, dammit, I can do it.”