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?

February 1997By Comments

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 peers around the country but far ahead of Houston’s ballet, opera, or symphony.

Much of the Alley’s clout grows out of these deep pockets. After all, not every regional theater could afford to pay for a Robert Wilson production (Hamlet alone cost almost $500,000), and the Alley has put on three. And it is the only non-musical theater in Houston that pays its actors a living wage. Company member John Feltch says he has sometimes set his sights on New York, but friends there tell him not to come: “They say, ‘You don’t know how good you have it.’”

But no amount of money can make great art, and some observers question whether Boyd has put the style of his shows too far ahead of their substance. The first production he staged at the Alley, for instance, was a titillating leather-and-chains version of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure complete with an ear-splitting rock score and copious fog. But if Boyd’s debut was well received—the Chronicle praised its “emotional validity”—his bad-boy aura quickly came to seem like a gimmick, for similar hypermodern elements reappeared in shows ranging from the Bard’s As You Like It to Brecht’s In the Jungle of Cities. (“The director’s touches are too often cheap and manipulative,” the Chronicle said of Boyd’s 1993 Macbeth, calling it “the vulgarization of a great play.”) “Some of those shows were dogs,” admits Austin American-Statesman theater critic Michael Barnes, who nevertheless is a fan of Boyd’s. “The productions always look like what we were brought up to think theater should be,” adds Houston Press theater critic Megan Halverson, “but there’s nothing particularly enlightening about any of them, and therefore it all turns into this bland goodness. I’ve never been sitting at the Alley and had the breath knocked out of me.” Likewise, although both Jekyll & Hyde’s promoter, Pace Theatrical Group, and the Alley say Boyd left the show’s tour to return to his commitments in Houston and not because of any dissatisfaction with his direction, Pace has since hired noted play “fixer” Robin Phillips to reconceive Hyde for Broadway.

In truth, Boyd doesn’t have to be a great director to be a great artistic director—his talent lies in attracting funds and recognizing talent in others—but he keeps trying. This season, he is directing most of the schedule, including the eight-hour epic The Greeks, which opens February 28, while the esteemed Michael Wilson—who is now based in New York and has Edward Albee and Tony Kushner asking him to direct their plays—will be directing only Love! Valour! Compassion! Last season Boyd pulled off something of a coup for the Alley when he navigated union rules and the Immigration and Naturalization Service to bring Corin and Vanessa Redgrave’s Moving Theatre Company for an unprecedented international collaboration: a Shakespearean double bill of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Yet though the project got lots of attention, the plays garnered decidedly mixed reviews. The New York Times called Caesar “bumpily staged [and] intermittently insightful.”

Boyd responds to the naysayers by insisting that the Alley has a recognizable style and aesthetic. But what is it? “If you had been to other regional theaters, you wouldn’t ask what the Alley style was,” he told me during an interview in his office in one of the Alley’s windowless turrets. When pressed about how he recognizes talent or secures the rights to hot plays, he gave a pleased half-smile and said simply, “That’s the magic.”

At the time he was hired, Boyd was hailed as a much needed shot in the arm for the Alley. “He was fun and witty and erudite,” says Patricia Hubbard, who was then the president of the theater’s board and now serves on its executive committee. “We all just had positive vibes about him.” Yet others who have worked with Boyd paint a different picture of him, one more akin to his celebrated musical’s title character.

There is Boyd’s Dr. Jekyll, charming and generous, possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of theater and film—but then there is his unpredictable Hyde, prone to fits of verbal abuse. Of course, in the tiny, Byzantine universe of regional theater, artistically temperamental behavior is not unusual, and the Alley is no exception. There are stories, for instance, that Boyd is “mean” and difficult to work with, though except for University of Houston visiting artist Jose Quintero, who says Boyd was “not of the most welcoming kind” when they collaborated on Our Town in 1993, local theater people are unwilling to criticize him publicly.

Boyd was unwilling to comment on any of the criticisms of him, but I got a firsthand glimpse of his volatility during our interview. Waxing philosophical and recycling many of his favorite maxims, including Brecht’s favorite Cervantes quote “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” he was relaxed and easygoing until his assistant knocked on the door to say that Vanessa Redgrave was on the phone. “I don’t care!” Boyd snarled, rolling his eyes. A moment later, he was speaking enthusiastically about his upcoming production of The Greeks, “the first soap opera,” which cobbles together famous and lesser-known Greek plays to tell the entire story of the House of Atreus.

At day’s end, though the Alley may be getting mixed reviews in some quarters, there’s no denying that it’s a hit. “All you have to do is look at the bottom line to see that Greg is a genius,” says board member Anne Graubart. Indeed, with the coveted Tony in hand, Boyd has finally brought home the bacon for Houston’s status-conscious arts supporters. The spike in ticket sales after Tetreault’s arrival may have subsided and the fiftieth-season opener, Inherit the Wind, may not have sold as well as expected, but it’s not likely that the Alley would be overlooked by Town & Country today.

Shaila Dewan is a freelance writer living in Houston.

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