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Let's Hope the Walls Talk

June 12, 2008 By:
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As I read the small item in the arts section of the April 30 New York Times, it felt as if my heart were being sliced into small pieces. New York University was proposing to demolish the near-mythic Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village as part of an expansion project. And, as reporter Felicia R. Lee noted, not everyone, understandably, was so happy. Community leaders and scholars were resisting the effort, arguing that the building is of historic significance since it's where Eugene O'Neill's early plays were originally produced.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, told the Times, "It is a beloved piece of our city's history and, I would argue, our country's history." If the building were to go, it would "create an enormous rift between the university and the surrounding community, preservationists, theater lovers, that I'm not sure how easy it will ever be to repair."

You have to understand, the first play I ever saw on Broadway was the Actors Studio revival of O'Neill's Strange Interlude. Its nine acts were divided into two parts (with a dinner interlude); running time was six hours -- and every minute was riveting. I'd already been hooked by reading O'Neill's plays, and I still have in my library my aged, faded Vintage paperback edition of Three Plays that I bought that night in 1963 (just shy of my 14th birthday) in a Times Square bookstore and devoured on the train ride back to Philly with my father, who had kindly indulged his son's obsessional interests that night. (Not that he didn't benefit; he talked about that production, literally, until the day he died, and he was no great lover either of O'Neill or the theater.) So, at an early age, I knew about the Provincetown Playhouse and all it meant to the history of the stage.

You also have to understand that I wanted nothing more than to go to NYU, but my father refused. He said he'd have to drag me out of every theater in New York and force me to study, which was probably not unrealistic, but still an excuse. NYU was pricey then, as now, and he didn't want to spend that kind of money, though he could afford to. I wound up going to the University of Iowa, which was itself an extraordinary experience.

But, luckily for me, back in the '60s, NYU in the Village (there was an academically more prestigious campus in the Bronx, which no longer exists) had a program called Junior Year in New York, and my father -- again, kindly -- let me apply. The year was 1968-69 -- no more extraordinary time to live in the Village and partake in the cultural bounty of Manhattan. I'd walk past the Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street any chance I got, dreaming about its storied past.

NYU has now revised its plan, according to the May 17 Times. It's now willing to let the walls of the original playhouse remain, and the university will build a new theater in place of the old one. But NYU still expects to erect a six-story building at the site for use by the law school. Some people are pleased, others less so. As for me, my heart feels no better.

 

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