Hold the Line
Arts and Entertainment
by Jonathan Zeller, 05/21/2014
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Make it cheap.
If you're looking for a lesson on theatrical durability to be learned from Line, which has been at the same downtown theater for 40 years and reigns as New York City's longest-running play, that's one of the big ones.
Israel Horovitz, the playwright behind the show, remembers its debut at influential Off-Off-Broadway theater La MaMa in November of 1967: La MaMa founder Ellen Stewart "gave you a budget of 80 bucks and told you if you didn't spend all 80 dollars, you could keep the difference." Horovitz, 28 at the time and already father to three children, cashed in on the arrangement. "The only piece of scenery in the show is a piece of adhesive tape on the floor," he says. "I cleared a profit of about 78 dollars."
The bare-bones approach continues today. When you go to see Line, you're certainly not getting Broadway. The 65-seat 13th Street Repertory Company—where the production was revived in 1974—is old and musty. The actors are just starting their careers. The theater's owner, 97-year-old Edith O'Hara, might be sitting in the lobby watching Shark Tank on TV as you wait for the house to open.
What you are getting, though, is a production much the same as it was when downtown was a very different place.
The absurdist drama, in which five characters lie, cheat and otherwise manipulate each other to be first in a line—even though they're not sure what for—has featured such actors as Chazz Palminteri, John Cazale and Richard Dreyfuss, and the script has remained unchanged for all these years. While the length of the show's run speaks for itself, and it's been translated into more than 35 languages and performed around the world, it's certainly recognizable as a product of its time—particularly the portrayal of the female character, Molly, who manipulates her male counterparts with sex and is the object of continuous verbal and physical abuse.
"Our culture has changed," says Horovitz, acknowledging the way Molly comes off today. "I probably wouldn’t write the female character the way I wrote her 50 years ago, if I wrote the play today. It wouldn't cross my mind." Still, he says, "Does the play hold up 50 years later? I guess it does. It's being done around the world every night. So who am I to judge?"
The survival of the 13th Street Repertory Company's theater itself is fairly remarkable. Over the years, money problems and squabbles with co-owners of the property, who have wanted to develop the premises for other purposes, have threatened the theater's continued existence, but O'Hara has kept it going. Even in 2006, when she was promised a chance to run the place and live there for the rest of her life in exchange for selling off her shares in the building, she refused—citing the desire for the theater where so many notable artists have gotten a start to serve as her legacy after she herself is gone.
For Horovitz, Line launched a fruitful international career in theater and film that continues to this day. My Old Lady, which Horovitz directed and adapted for the screen from his own play (and which stars Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas), is set to hit theaters in October.
One might not have foreseen such success back in 1967, when Line's lead actor quit right before opening night, flying out to Los Angeles for a TV pilot and forcing the playwright to step in and play the lead role with only one night's rehearsal. There was immense pressure, despite the small venue. "All of the critics in New York went to La MaMa at the time because they were trying to discover the new [Edward] Albee," he says. But the performance went over well enough.
"The phone rang about three days after Line opened," says Horovitz, "and I heard Pacino's voice go, 'You son of a bitch.' And I knew I got a good review somewhere." Sure enough, the New York Post's theater critic Jeffrey Tallmer had raved about Line, the first of many glowing reviews. (Al Pacino had been working with Horovitz on another play, The Indian Wants the Bronx, which would open a few months later.)
After its week at La MaMa and a short-lived Off-Broadway run at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel), Line looked like it was done. When Horovitz went to pick his daughter up from an acting class at the 13th Street Repertory Company, he told O'Hara he was depressed about the end of his play—"It's like a death," he remembers saying—and she decided she'd give it a new home.
"Forty years later," says Horovitz, "it's still going. Which is a tribute to how small the theater is."
Off-Off Broadway Today
Horovitz, who still lives down the street from the 13th Street Repertory Company in Greenwich Village (and who is father to Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys), says, "My heart goes out to [a playwright] starting out today—it just seemed like it was so much easier to get your stuff on in my time."
It's no secret that it's more expensive to do almost anything in New York City today, putting on theater included, than it was back in the 1960s and '70s. But up-and-coming artists still find ways to get their work on its feet in the shadow of Broadway's big-money spectacles, and the city's Off-Off-Broadway theaters are a big part of that. Among them: The Flea—home to a popular storytelling series—and Theater for the New City, which is known for its politically engaged productions and for hosting the Lower East Side Festival of the Arts. There's also still La MaMa itself, and the New York International Fringe Festival, an annual event that brings scores of outside-the-box performances to stages throughout NYC.