Curtain ready to rise for Act II of the Cherry Lane Theatre


By Jerry Tallmer

I burn my candle at both ends,

it will not last the night.

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends,

It gives a lovely light.

— Edna St. Vincent Millay

One candle that Edna St. Vincent Millay lit in 1924 — the Cherry Lane Theatre she founded in what had once been a brewery on Commerce St., a couple of minutes’ walk from her tiny house on Bedford St. — has been giving a lovely light for 82 years now, despite some flickering over the decades and a lake in the first four rows whenever it rained.

The post-rain lake was the first thing that confronted Angelina Fiordellisi when she came in as artistic director in 1996.

If poet-playwright Millay (1892-1950) came back to take part in Act II: The New Cherry Lane gala, next month on Monday evening April 3, she’d hardly recognize the old place — once she got past the 38 Commerce St. frontage, which is still pretty much as it was in 1924. But inside, there’s a new lobby, a new box office, a new main stage, new lighting, new sound, new storage space, two new ceiling beams, new seats, new upholstery, new plumbing, a whole new little auxiliary theater called The Studio — and, oh yes, the first-four-rows flooding is no more.

What hasn’t changed is the sheer double essential of all true theater: a plank and a passion.

Such a plank and such a passion as have filled the Cherry Lane with the plays of, among many others, William Congreve, John Dos Passos, Elmer Rice, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Preston Sturges, Euripedes, Auden & Isherwood, Georg Kaiser, William Saroyan, Gertrude Stein, Kenneth Rexroth, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Jean Anouilh, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, Edward Albee, Thornton Wilder, Clifford Odets, Jean Genet, Adrienne Kennedy, Pablo Picasso, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter ….

Oh my God, we have to stop somewhere, but I myself watched Alan Schneider in his baseball cap rehearsing Beckett’s “Endgame” at the Cherry Lane in 1957, taking each actor aside — Lester Rawlins, Alvin Epstein, P.J. Kelly, Nydia Westman — to whisper suggestions into their individual ears.

And the actors! Just to start: Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Franchot Tone, Beatrice Arthur, Rod Steiger, Jerry Stiller, Judith Malina, Geraldine Page, Anthony Franciosa, Fritz Weaver, Nancy Wickwire, Robert Loggia, Vincent Gardenia, Ruth White, John C. Becher, Peter Falk, Colleen Dewhurst, Comden & Green, Sudie Bond, Leonard Frey, Roberts Blossom, Boris Tumarin, Estelle Parsons, Frances Sternhagen, Robert Hooks, Jennifer West … and maybe a thousand others. Maybe two thousand.

“Harold Prince came by to see me,” says Angelina Fiordellisi (think Fleur-de-lys). “He said: ‘You don’t in your literature include Kim Stanley. I saw her here.’ ”

Sure enough, Kim Stanley, another very bright candle indeed, was in Gertrude Stein’s “Young Is for a Very Young Man” at the Cherry Lane in the summer of 1949. Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times: “In Kim Stanley, as a young French mother, the Off-Broadway people have a talented actress with temperament, craft, and, if there is any justice on Broadway, a future.”

Producer/director Hal Prince told artistic director Fiordellisi that the Cherry Lane had “always been a choice venue.”

Theater people who will be joining in the celebration of that venue on April 3 are F. Murray Abraham. Amiri (LeRoi Jones) Baraka, Robbie Benson, Billy Crudup, Karla DeVito, Dule Hill, Judith Ivey.

Once upon a time a young man named Jerry Stiller, just out of the World War II U.S. Army, took the subway down to Greenwich Village and the Cherry Lane Theatre. He was put to work painting scenery. A large fellow was already there, paintbrush in hand. “This is how you paint flats,” the large fellow instructed Stiller. “Up and down, not horizontally. If you do it horizontally, it looks fake. My name’s Rod Steiger. I’m late. You’re on. I have to go to the Dramatic Workshop to play Jesus.” And that’s how Jerry Stiller learned to paint scenery.

The same Jerry Stiller later, enthusiastically if accidentally, knocked Judith Malina offstage. The lady weighed 90-something pounds — maybe less — then and now. Judith Malina, who with her husband Julian Beck leased the Cherry Lane in the early 1950s for the avant-garde productions of their Living Theater, did not take kindly to an inspector for the Fire Department who came sniffing round. She threw a spear at him.

There are 178 seats in the main stage of the Cherry Lane. Rod Steiger, for an interview by Bravo late in his life, sat in one of those seats, alone in the empty house, applauding all the great artists who’d worked here or had their works done here. “This place is small,” Steiger said, “but the ideas are big.”

One of the ongoing programs of which artistic director Fiordellisi and managing director James King are particularly proud is the Cherry Lane Mentor Project. Season after season, “three preeminent dramatists” take under wing and offer guidance to “three nascent playwrights” with one nascent play each in development. This year’s three and three: Michael Weller (Sheila Gallagher: “Lascivious Something”), Lynn Nottage (Katori Hall: “Hoodoo Love”), Theresa Rebeck (Megan Mostyn-Brown: “Girl”).

Other ongoing activities include a Heritage Series (new productions of historic Cherry Lane hits); a Discovery Series (an outcrop of the Mentor Project); a Black Playwrights celebration; a Women Playwrights celebration; a Master Class, and a series of readings called Tongues.

The highly successful Mentor Project is itself an outcrop, over the decades, of Albarwild, or the Barr-Wilder-Albee Playwrights’ Unit, established in the early 1960s by producers Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder and playwright Edward Albee. Albee in 1958 had arrived on the scene with “The Zoo Story” (first done in Germany, then at the Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal St., then at the Cherry Lane).

Edward Albee, winner since then of three Pulitzer Prizes, four Tony Awards and I don’t know how many Obie Awards, has always been the most generous of playwrights toward other playwrights, writers, artists, whoever. He himself, on April 3, will receive a Cherry Lane Legacy Award, as will playwright David Henry Hwang, theatrical lawyer John F. Breglio and New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn — who, says Angelina Fiordellisi, “got us our lights for free.”

Installation of the lights, etc., is what cost money. The total tab for Renovation 38 (38 Commerce St., get it?) is, says Ms. Fiordellisi, $1.7 million “for bricks and mortar,” $2.1 million for lights and sound. Not to mention upgrading and addition of bathrooms — one of them, “the most beautiful room in the building.”

As Fiordellisi says this, she is herself energetically pacing the upstairs administrative office, which also houses, along one long wall, the priceless 2,000-volume theatrical library left to the Cherry Lane by critic and author Thomas Quinn Curtis.

Angelina Fiordellisi, product of Detroit, Michigan, and the University of Detroit, daughter of immigrants from Baiano, Italy, was in “Man of La Mancha” out at home, and scared to come to New York, until her friend Susann Brinkley said to her: “I’m putting your ass on a plane.” That was April 1982.

“I borrowed $300 from my mother and came. Then I lived off ‘Zorba’ for the next three years.”

This Angelina, Mrs. Matt Williams in private life —what private life? — is a woman of some spirit. What used to be called the Can-Do spirit. I don’t imagine Edna St. Vincent Millay had much in common with Angelini Fiordellisi, except everything.