Mixed Review

As it turns fifty, Houston’s Alley Theatre has plenty of money, strong ticket sales, and even a Tony. So why is there grumbling in the wings?

IN MAY 1990 THE ALLEY THEATRE did something it had never done before: It produced a new musical, Jekyll & Hyde, based on the famous story by Robert Louis Stevenson and directed by the Alley’s new artistic director, Gregory Boyd. Audiences packed the house (as they would later flock to the show’s national tour), but critics were less enthusiastic. For years the Alley had been a bastion of serious theater, presenting the classics and works by playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill and Lillian Hellman—so why was it producing a Phantom of the Opera—like extravaganza so clearly designed for Broadway? “That sort of show is just a mainstream commercial attraction,” says Houston Chronicle theater critic Everett Evans. Laurie Winer of the Los Angeles Times called Hyde “almost completely reliant on formula and bombast.”

Nearly seven years later, the musical—which, indeed, is about to open on Broadway—is emblematic of the current state of the Alley: an undeniable success that nevertheless leaves some cognoscenti wanting more. As the theater turns fifty this year, it is more than ever a point of pride for Houston: Its finances are finally sound, the house is regularly filled, and on its mantel is the 1996 Tony award for regional theater. “Audiences can depend on exciting and consistently excellent productions whenever they attend,” editorialized the Chronicle last spring. Yet there is grumbling in the wings. Critics note that every major regional theater eventually wins the Tony, which has been awarded since the mid-seventies. They chide the Alley for not taking artistic risks or nurturing new playwrights, and they fault Boyd for his unadventurous artistic leadership. So, on its golden anniversary, it seems a good time to ask: Just how good is the Alley?

The Alley was founded in 1947 by schoolteacher Nina Vance and operated out of a dance studio for a year until it moved into a small, arena-style theater in a decrepit fan factory. In the early sixties the Ford Foundation gave Vance $2.1 million to build the Alley’s current castlelike building downtown. After Vance died, in 1980, the Alley board turned to director Pat Brown, who had worked at the theater in its early days. But with the venerable Vance a hard act to follow and the Houston economy faltering, Brown’s tenure was a bust: The Alley’s deficit quickly rose to $1.5 million and several key staffers departed. The ultimate blow came in 1987, when Town & Country magazine listed the nation’s top regional theaters—and omitted the Alley. Arts critic Ann Holmes, writing in the Chronicle in February 1988, blasted the theater for lacking a broad philosophy, artistic experimentation, and intellectual curiosity; not long after that, Brown was fired. Nine months later, the board hired Boyd away from StageWest in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he was the artistic director; he had previously worked as a director at Massachusetts’ prestigious Williamstown Theatre Festival and had headed the theater program at the University of North Carolina. “I’m pleased, excited, exhilarated, and enthused,” Boyd said at the time. “The Alley is at an important evolutionary milestone with a potential to reaffirm its position as a flagship in the American resident theater movement.”

Today you would have to travel as far as Chicago (the Goodman); Louisville, Kentucky (the Actors Theatre); or Los Angeles (the Mark Taper Forum) to find a theater of the Alley’s size and reputation; nothing else in Texas comes close. But being a regional giant comes with a complicated mandate. You must set a standard for excellence and encourage local talent. You must present the classics and keep your audience up on New York and London. And especially now, when the economics of Broadway are so astronomical, you should take risks and test new works. “The regional theater, in my judgment, is the American theater,” Holmes says today.

The Alley excels in many of these areas. Its stature enables it to get New York’s top plays hot off the boards, and the 45-year-old Boyd has a knack for choosing right: Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile and Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!, which are on the spring schedule, are the shows everyone wants to see. The Alley’s productions often rival Broadway in quality, thanks to its crackerjack resident acting company (one of the few left in the country) and top-to-bottom production staff. And the Alley plays its trump cards well. Its production of internationally renowned director Robert Wilson’s one-man Hamlet: A Monologue opened Lincoln Center’s Serious Fun! Festival in 1995 and was joined at the Venice Biennale by the Alley’s production of Angels in America, directed by the theater’s former associate director Michael Wilson, who is now an associate artist. But if the updated classic and the New York hit make regular appearances at the Alley, a world premiere is a rarity. By contrast, other regional theaters present two or three premieres a season. I’m Not Rappaport and The Heidi Chronicles debuted at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, for example, and Angels originated at the Mark Taper Forum. Some regional theaters, like the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., have play-development programs; others host new-play festivals. The Alley does neither. Even the few new plays that Boyd says are “in the hopper” at the Alley are all by well-established playwrights, not up-and-comers.

Unlike most regional theaters, the Alley operates its own building at a cost of more than $300,000 a year, a fact that might make it less willing to take chances than in days past. Yet its financial picture is decidedly rosy, thanks largely to the efforts of managing director Paul Tetreault, who arrived in August 1994 after stints at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California and New York’s Madison Square Garden. In only a year Tetreault reined in spending, whittled a $2.5 million deficit down to less than $250,000, and increased ticket revenues by nearly $2 million. Last year a Tetreault-led capital campaign increased the Alley’s endowment to a respectable $15 million. The Alley earns 60 percent of the money it takes in, which is on a par with its

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