November 21, 2002
The Upscale March of the New Theater Row

Anyone who visited the western stretch of old Theater Row, along 42nd Street from Ninth to Dyer Avenue, in the last decade probably remembers its theaters' simple charms: their intimate (small) stages; their rugged (O.K., ragged) seats; their dogged let's-put-on-a-show (we hope) ethos.

There were, of course, also some less inspiring elements.

"The bathrooms were foul, the seats were questionable and the air-conditioning often didn't work," said Fred Papert, president of the 42nd Street Development Corporation, the nonprofit organization that has overseen the development of Theater Row since the mid-1970's. "You could hear the A.C.," he said, "but couldn't hear the plays."

Last month, however, with almost no fanfare and the paint still drying, a new Theater Row began to emerge from the whirl of construction along that block. The first building to open was the Theater Row complex at 410-412 West 42nd Street, and even in a city teeming with famous-name arenas, big Broadway star chambers and closet-size black boxes, it is an unheard-of theatrical real estate phenomenon: five new Off Broadway theaters under one roof. (Little of the old theaters remains except an interior wall here and there.)

It is a major piece in the revitalization of what is said to be the biggest Off Broadway theater redevelopment in New York history. At the other end of the block, at 422 West 42nd Street, is the Little Shubert, a 499-seat, $12 million house built by the Shubert Organization, Broadway's most powerful landlord, for developing work for its bigger stages. It is expected to open next month with "Tommy Tune: White Tie and Tails," Mr. Tune's first show in New York in a decade.

In between the five-theater complex and the Little Shubert is the Playwrights Horizons' new home at 416 West 42nd Street, which will have two theaters, offices and rehearsal space. It too is nearing completion and is expected to open in January. Hovering above all the theaters is a new 40-story apartment complex, the air rights of which paid for some of the stage-building below.

With a rejuvenated Times Square beginning to spill into adjacent neighborhoods and additional residential development on 42nd Street and 10th and 11th Avenues, the developers of these eight new theaters are hoping that this stretch of 42nd Street, once synonymous with massage parlors and sex shops, will finally be transformed into Off Broadway's official main stem.

"We want it to be a destination," Mr. Papert said.

It's been a long time coming. Mr. Papert has, in one role or another, been working on Theater Row since 1976, when the development corporation turned its eye to the seedy western spur of 42nd Street.

Working with theater companies like Intar, the Acting Company and the South Street Theater, the development corporation built theaters on the block, which were subsequently named for historic theatrical figures like Harold Clurman, Samuel Beckett and Judith Anderson.

Those houses, which were home to such productions as "In the Boom Boom Room" and "Vanities" in the 1970's and more recently shows like "Goose Pimples" and "Tape," had by the mid-1990's become less desirable, as newer, better-equipped Off Broadway theaters began to pop up around the city. "They were getting seedy," Mr. Papert said.

So, after buying a vital piece of adjacent property from the Port Authority, the development corporation drew up plans for its dream of Theater Row, with new theaters, plenty of rehearsal space and really good air-conditioning. Construction began in spring 2000 under the guidance of Bruce Levine, the development corporation's chief operating officer.

Built with $12 million of development corporation money and $3 million from the developer, the Brodsky Organization, the new five-theater complex houses theaters aimed at the varying ambitions of Off Broadway companies: an 88-seat house (the Lion) for low-budget showcase productions; three 99-seat theaters (the Kirk, the Beckett, and the Clurman) for more developed work; and a 199-seat theater, the Acorn, which is envisioned by officials as a home for commercial productions as well as large nonprofit shows.

Each theater has top-quality lighting and sound equipment and is served by new second-floor cafe. A new box office serves all five theaters, and there are new restrooms, new showers and new dressing rooms.

"The new spaces are a lot nicer," said Donna Trinkoff, the producing director of Amas Musical Theater, producer of "Zanna, Don't!," the well-reviewed musical that was one of the first shows to play in the new complex. "I liked the old grungy spaces, but it's easier on the heart to work on theater with good equipment and a nice box office."

The five-story building also contains office space on the upper floors and six new rehearsal rooms on the lower floors, with sprung floors and ample soundproofing.

All of that has already attracted the attention of some of the more established Off Broadway companies in the city, including the New Group, which will present two plays there this season; the Labyrinth Theater Company, which will present a new John Patrick Shanley play at the complex early next year; and the MCC Theater, which recently lost its home on West 28th Street and is looking at the possibility staying on Theater Row.

Peter Bloch, general manager of the complex, said he's already mulling bookings through next summer. "We're definitely turning away some people," Mr. Bloch said. "People tour it and see the new theaters and the facilities and get excited."

That said, the cost of renting the theaters, which ranges from about $3,500 to $8,000 a week, does make the new stages prohibitive for some companies, especially those wanting to do showcase productions.

Ms. Trinkoff, of the nonprofit Amas company, which spent $135,000 on a four-week run of "Zanna, Don't!," said she feared that some companies that previously rented space on Theater Row would not be able to afford to perform in the new complex.

"These are state-of-the-art theaters with state-of-the-art prices," she said. "I hope that they keep the nonprofit vision alive."

Mr. Papert said that the complex recognized that issue and addressed it by offering lower rates to nonprofit companies.

"We still view these very much as incubator theaters for developing new work," he said, though he added that the largest theater, the Acorn, would probably have a fair share of commercial runs.

The complex is also facing competition from Off Broadway theaters recently built or under construction.

In July, Dodger Theatricals, the Broadway producer of shows like "Urinetown," "42nd Street" and "Into the Woods," confirmed that it would build five new Off Broadway theaters and a rehearsal hall in the Worldwide Plaza office and residential complex at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street where discount movies were once shown. The Dodger complex may also include a restaurant.

To the south, the garment district has also seen new theaters pop up in the last year, including the Zipper Theater on West 37th Street and the Revelation Theater, now being built on West 39th Street.

Eric Krebs, an established producer ("Little Ham" ) and longtime manager of the John Houseman and Douglas Fairbanks Theater, both on the west of Theater Row, between Dyer and 10th Avenues, said he doubted that the city needed so many midsize theaters.

"I think we're going to find some surprises in terms of oversupply of Off Broadway houses," Mr. Krebs said.

For the time being, officials at the Theater Row complex seem confident that they will be able to strike a balance between making rent and making art. Mr. Bloch pointed out that of the seven shows produced at the complex so far, five had been by nonprofit companies.

"If we we do it right, we will be a center of newly developed works, and not a rental house," Mr. Bloch said. "Our goal is not to be a rental house. It's to be a community."