At This Theatre: Circle in the Square Theatre
Located in the Uris Building at Fiftieth Street, west of Broadway, the Circle in the Square is situated below the former Uris Theatre, now renamed the Gershwin Theatre. It has 650 seats, more than double the number of its Off-Broadway parent. At the time of the new theatre’s opening, Mann told PLAYBILL: “Every seat here has a perfect view. Essentially, the design is based on the old theatre — with almost exactly the same stage space. But we have the latest technical facilities — we can trap the stage, have enough height to fly the scenery — from an artistic and scenic point of view. And look at the ceiling in the auditorium. I don’t know of any other theatre like this that has a visible grid above the audience where electricians and stage hands can walk about. All our lighting will come from there. This is a whole new innovation in the Broadway area — the arrival of institutional theatres.”
The new theatre was much more cheerful than its predecessor on Bleecker Street, with bright red seats and a red-and-gray checked carpet bearing the Circle in the Square cube symbol, which was repeated in the solid cube lights in the handsome lobby. Audiences enter the theatre by walking down a flight of stairs or riding escalators to a lounge below street level.
“We owe a lot to [the late New York Times critic] Brooks Atkinson for the design of this theatre,” Mann stated. “When we were building the first one, I asked Mr. Atkinson what the essential ingredient should be. He replied, ‘When you walk in the door, you should see the stage — that should predominate — not the audience.’ So, when you walk into our theatre, the first thing you see is the stage — and it works.”
Owing to the stature of Circle in the Square and its policy of offering a subscription season of short runs, the new theatre quickly amassed an impressive roll call of stars and productions, photographs of which were used to decorate the lounge and bar area.
The new Circle in the Square opened auspiciously with a revival of an edited version of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, with Colleen Dewhurst. Critics praised the production and the new theatre, expressing satisfaction that although the house was larger and more modern, it preserved the intimacy and ambience of its downtown predecessor.
In 1973 the theatre presented Irene Papas in Medea; Siobhan McKenna in Here Are Ladies; Lillian Gish, George C. Scott, Nicol Williamson, Barnard Hughes, and Julie Christie in Uncle Vanya; Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach in The Waltz of the Toreadors; and James Earl Jones in The Iceman Cometh.
The year 1974 offered a new play, An American Millionaire, by Murray Schisgal; Jim Dale in Scapino, which transferred to a commercial run at the Ambassador; Rita Moreno in The National Health; and Raul Julia in the musical Where’s Charley? During the course of the latter run, original star Ray Bolger attended a performance. Julia spotted him and invited him onto the stage for an impromptu dance.
In 1975 Circle in the Square staged Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, directed by George C. Scott; Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, starring Scott; Ah, Wilderness!, with Geraldine Fitzgerald; and Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, with Maureen Stapleton and Rip Torn.
The 1976 season highlighted Vanessa Redgrave in Ibsen’s The Lady From the Sea; Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, with Christopher Chadman and Joan Copeland; Mildred Dunnock in Days in the Trees, by Marguerite Duras; and Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana, starring Richard Chamberlain and Dorothy McGuire.
Four revivals were presented in 1977: Paul Rudd and Pamela Payton-Wright in Romeo and Juliet; Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest; John Wood, Mildred Dunnock, and Tammy Grimes in Molière’s Tartuffe; and Lynn Redgrave in Shaw’s Saint Joan.
In 1978 Circle in the Square staged Feydeau’s 13 Rue de L’Amour, with Louis Jourdan and Patricia Elliott; Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime, with John Lithgow, Treat Williams, Max Wright, and Jayne Meadows Allen; Gogol’s The Inspector General, with Theodore Bikel; and Shaw’s Man and Superman, with George Grizzard, Philip Bosco, and Laurie Kennedy.
The 1979 season included two new plays: Spokesong, by Stewart Parker, with John Lithgow, Virginia Vestoff, Joseph Maher, and Maria Tucci; and Loose Ends, by Michael Weller, with Kevin Kline and Roxanne Hart.
The 1980 productions included Major Barbara, with Philip Bosco and Laurie Kennedy; Past Tense, by Jack Zeman, with Barbara Feldon and Laurence Luckinbill; and Ellis Rabb in The Man Who Came to Dinner.
In 1981 Irene Papas returned in The Bacchae; E. G. Marshall, Irene Worth, and Rosemary Murphy appeared in John Gabriel Borkman; Ralph Waite and Frances Sternhagen headlined The Father; and a new American play, Scenes and Revelations, by Elan Garonzik, was presented.
The 1982 season opened with Joanne Woodward in Candida, followed by Macbeth, starring Nicol Williamson. Next came Percy Granger’s new play, Eminent Domain, with Philip Bosco and Betty Miller.
In the summer of 1982 George C. Scott was hailed in a hilarious revival of Noël Coward’s light comedy Present Laughter, which featured the 26-year-old Nathan Lane making his Broadway debut.
The year 1983 began with a scintillating revival of Molière’s The Misanthrope, with Brian Bedford, Carole Shelley, and Mary Beth Hurt. This was followed by an exciting revival of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial with John Rubinstein, Michael Moriarty, and William Atherton. Later, football star Joe Namath joined the cast, making his Broadway debut. Next came a revival of Shaw’s Heartbreak House starring Rex Harrison and Rosemary Harris, with Amy Irving.
The year 1984 brought a new production of Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing!; Noël Coward’s Design for Living, starring Jill Clayburgh, Frank Langella, Raul Julia and Lisa Kirk; Shaw’s Arms and the Man starring Kevin Kline and Julia, directed by John Malkovich; The Marriage of Figaro, starring Christopher Reeve, Anthony Heald, Dana Ivey, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Louis Zorich; and a limited engagement of The Robert Klein Show, starring the popular comic. Malkovich directed a 1986 production of Pinter’s The Caretaker. George C. Scott and John Cullum starred in The Boys in Autumn, a play about the reunion after 50 years of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.
In the fall of 1986, a revival of Shaw’s You Never Can Tell had a sterling cast headed by Uta Hagen, Victor Garber, Philip Bosco, and Amanda Plummer. In March 1987 Tina Howe’s play Coastal Disturbances opened and played for ten months. Next came a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Blythe Danner, Aidan Quinn, Frank Converse, and Frances McDormand. An Evening with Robert Klein played here in June 1988 and was followed by revivals of Juno and the Paycock and The Night of the Iguana. A revival of Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, with Bosco, Garber, Rosemary Murphy, and Remak Ramsey, played for 113 performances; and Ghetto, by Joshua Sobol (English version by David Lan), gave 33 performances.
Susan H. Schulman’s new production of the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler classic Sweeney Todd, which had previously been presented at the York Theatre in Manhattan, was brought to the Circle in the Square in September 1989 and played for 189 performances, starring Bob Gunton and Beth Fowler. Taking note of its dimensions (greatly reduced from the Broadway original), the parody revue Forbidden Broadway dubbed this production “Teeny Todd.”
May 1990 brought a new play, Zoya’s Apartment, by Mikhail Bulgakov (translated by Nicholas Saunders); the following October saw a lively revival of Molière’s The Miser, with Philip Bosco, Mia Dillon, and Carole Shelley. Taking Steps, a British farce by Alan Ayckbourn, enjoyed 78 performances in 1991.
On Borrowed Time, a loving 1991 revival of Paul Osborn’s charming comedy about Death trapped up a tree, starred George C. Scott as Gramps and Matthew Poroc as Pud, his grandson, with Teresa Wright and Nathan Lane (as a dapper “Mr. Brink”). It received excellent notices. Nevertheless, after this point, increasing financial difficulties limited the number of shows presented by the Circle in the Square company at the uptown theatre.
Search and Destroy, a play by Howard Korder, ran for 46 performances in 1992 and was followed by Al Pacino in an evening of two very different plays: the overripe Salome by Oscar Wilde and the spartan Chinese Coffee, a new play by Ira Lewis. Both received mixed reviews from the critics. In fall 1992 a musical version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina by Peter Kellogg and Daniel Levine was also dismissed by the critics, with one of them rating it “One Czar.” Better received was the 1993 Wilder, Wilder, Wilder, three one-act plays by Thornton Wilder, which received a Tony nomination as the season’s Best Revival.
After standing dark for more than a year, the theatre relit in November 1994 for a revival of the Pulitzer-winning play The Shadow Box by Michael Cristofer, starring Marlo Thomas, Estelle Parsons, and Mercedes Ruehl. Ruehl received a Tony Award nomination as Featured Actress in a Play. The revival received lukewarm reviews and played for 48 performances. In February 1995 Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, in an English version by Jean-Claude van Itallie, opened with Tom Courtenay, Werner Klemperer, Elizabeth Franz, and others, and played for 29 performances. Another revival, Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo, followed, with Ruehl and Anthony LaPaglia in the leads. It was nominated for the Best Revival of a Play Tony Award and ran for 36 performances.
The following season, Circle in the Square presented a revival of Tennessee Williams’s Garden District, which consisted of two one-act plays: Something Unspoken and Suddenly Last Summer. The first, short play starred Myra Carter and Pamela Payton-Wright and was considered “slight” by critics. The second was judged a better play but marred by overacting. It starred Elizabeth Ashley, Jordan Baker, Celia Weston, and Victor Slezak, with critics singling out Baker for praise. The production was compared unfavorably with the movie version of Suddenly Last Summer, which starred Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and Montgomery Clift. The unsavory theme of cannibalism soured some critics and theatregoers. It ran for 31 performances.
Philip Barry’s delightful high comedy Holiday starred Laura Linney, Tony Goldwyn, Kim Raver, and Reg Rogers, whose performance as an alcoholic earned him a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Play. The comedy ran for 49 performances. Next came William Inge’s Bus Stop, starring Mary-Louise Parker and Billy Crudup. The play received mixed reviews, with some critics feeling that it was dated. Crudup received excellent reviews as the boisterous cowboy. The revival ran for 29 performances. Tartuffe: Born Again, a new version of Molière’s 1664 satire, starred John Glover as the archetypal religious hypocrite, with the action transposed from France to the American South. But the reviews were not encouraging. It opened in May 1996 and ran for 29 performances.
In August 1996 this theatre presented Al Pacino in a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s one-act Hughie, with only one other actor in the cast, Paul Benedict. It’s primarily a monologue for Pacino’s character, talking to a night clerk in a New York hotel lobby in 1928. The star’s performance received favorable reviews, boosting the show to a 56-performance run.
During that run an era ended at this theatre. Founders Theodore Mann and Paul Libin resigned, and Circle in the Square filed for bankruptcy protection.
The company seemed to be healing its financial wounds under their successors, Gregory Mosher and M. Edgar Rosenblum. On February 20, 1997, it hosted the Royal National Theater of London’s production of Stanley, starring Anthony Sher as the artist Stanley Spencer. Publicity over a brief nude scene almost overshadowed author Pam Gems’s study of whether artists are subject to the same rules as the rest of society. The critics admired Sher’s performance more than the play, and he received a Tony Award nomination as Best Actor in a Play. Other nominations: Best Play (Gems) and Best Director of a Play (John Caird). The production ran for 74 performances.
But financial difficulties persisted, and the theatre’s leadership changed again. The Circle in the Square remained closed until 1999, when it reopened as a regular commercial rental theatre, one of a handful of remaining “independents.” The Circle in the Square School continues to operate on its premises, as well. Several notable dramas have made use of the theatre’s flexible oblong performing space, which can be used in the round or as a thrust stage. The unorthodox arrangement of the theatre has tended to attract innovative and offbeat fare.
The first tenant after the reopening was Not About Nightingales, an early Tennessee Williams play, said to have been rediscovered among the author’s papers by Vanessa Redgrave. Presented to considerable acclaim, it was the harrowing true story of a notorious incident at an American prison in 1938, in which a brutal warden punished some rebellious convicts by locking them in a section of the jail where radiators made the heat unbearable and scalded the men until they died.
The warden was played by Corin Redgrave (Vanessa’s brother), who received a Tony Award nomination, as did Finbar Lynch as one of the inmates. The play received a Best Play Tony Award nomination and ran for 125 performances.
The Circle in the Square Theatre was leased to the HBO cable TV service in fall 1999. The theatre was used for taping the comedy-interview program The Chris Rock Show. It returned to legitimacy in spring 2000 with a revival of Sam Shepard’s True West, in which actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly alternated performances in the two primary roles.
The theatre had a hit starting in fall 2000. Christopher Ashley staged a stylish revival of Richard O’Brien’s cult rock musical The Rocky Horror Show, with a cast that included rock star Joan Jett, plus Dick Cavett, Alice Ripley, Raúl Esparza, Jarrod Emick, and Tom Hewitt. The production, for which the interior of the theatre was redecorated with eerie casts of human figures hung on the walls, earned a Tony nomination as Best Revival of a Musical and ran 437 performances.
A huge pool of water became the new square in the circle of the Circle in the Square for Metamorphoses, Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation and staging of Roman poet Ovid’s classic, which she brought from Chicago and Off-Broadway. She won the 2002 Tony Award as Best Director of a Play for her entertaining reimagining of the 2,000-year-old stories, which opened March 4, 2002, and ran 400 performances.
Things got drier but more contemporary on March 31, 2003, with the next offering, Yasmina Reza’s Life (x) 3, in which two couples are shown at the same dinner party but the action is played three different times with slight character changes that result in three different outcomes. Linda Emond, Helen Hunt, Brent Spiner, and John Turturro played the couples for 104 performances.
In Bryony Lavery’s drama Frozen, Swoosie Kurtz played an Englishwoman who tracks down and confronts the man (Brían F. O’Byrne) who kidnapped, sexually abused, and murdered her child. Laila Robbins played an American psychologist researching serial killers who tries to get to the heart of the crime. Frozen opened May 4, 2004, and ran 128 performances.
The Circle in the Square welcomed its greatest success in May 2005 with one of its most offbeat offerings, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Composer William Finn and librettist Rachel Sheinkin fashioned a musical around the emotionally fraught final rounds of a small regional spelling bee. A sterling cast led by Dan Fogler, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Sarah Saltzberg, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson helped them walk the line between affection and parody for the nerdy but full-of-heart 12-year-old characters. Sheinkin won the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, besting the authors of Spamalot, The Light in the Piazza, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Spelling Bee lasted 1,136 performances, making it the longest-running show in the Circle in the Square’s history.
The theatre was next home to the 2008 musical Glory Days, the story of four high-school friends who reunite on their alma mater’s football field to play a prank and tell some secrets. With a score by Nick Blaemire and a book by James Gardner, the show was a hit at Virginia’s Signature Theatre but a one-performance flop on Broadway on May 6, 2008, earning it the snarky nickname “Glory Day.”
Starting April 25, 2009, Kevin Spacey and the Old Vic Theatre of London brought over their acclaimed revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s comedic triptych The Norman Conquests with its British ensemble intact. The project involved three full-length plays — Living Together, Table Manners, and Round and Round the Garden — which showed what happened at the same dinner party in three different parts of the same house. The play was presented for an aggregate 109 performances and won the 200 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.
Director Kate Whoriskey, who had earned critical accolades for staging the Off-Broadway production of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Ruined, made her Broadway debut March 3, 2010, with the first Broadway revival of William Gibson’s drama The Miracle Worker, about the blind and deaf wunderkind Helen Keller (Abigail Breslin) and her determined teacher Annie Sullivan (Alison Pill). Critics felt this theatre’s in-the-round stage was not right for the play, and it lasted just 28 performances.
At this writing, the Circle in the Square was again under the direction of Theodore Mann and Paul Libin. It was home to the fall 2010 debut of Lombardi, a solo show about noted football coach Vince Lombardi, starring Dan Lauria and Judith Light. The show marked the producing debut of the National Football League and ran for 244 performances.