Long Wharf Theatre, newly renovated

Second Acts

Act surprised.

It’s tough to believe that with the new shows coming this week into the Yale Repertory Theatre and the Long Wharf Theatre, we’re already hitting the halfway mark in the 2012-13 theater season. Each theater offers a six-show subscription season; the Rep is opening the third of its shows, the world premiere of Dear Elizabeth, on November 30. The show, created by playwright Sarah Ruhl from the correspondence between the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, runs through December 22.

But both also offer other delights, the Long Wharf with its adjacent Stage II space and the Rep through its associated Yale School of Drama productions. The Rep season starts and ends before the Long Wharf’s does because of the Yale School of Drama’s annual student showcase, The Carlotta Festival of New Plays.

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The Long Wharf’s playing catch-up in any case, because its mainstage area and main lobby have been getting a months-long, multi-million dollar overhaul. It’s the first major renovation of the main auditorium in the Long Wharf’s 47-year history.

The inaugural show on what is now called the Claire Tow Stage (renamed in honor of one of the project’s major donors and longtime Long Wharf board members) begins previews tonight, Nov. 28, with opening night on Dec. 5. It’s a new adaptation of a raucous British play of the swinging ’60s, The Killing of Sister George. Kathleen Turner, the Body Heat and Serial Mom film star, both directs and co-stars in the drama, which has been given strong comedic overtones.

The Yale Rep, with less fanfare, had its own facelift earlier this year. During the summertime, the old church building which houses the Rep was wrapped in bright blue tarps and surrounded with scaffolding so that its brick exterior could be repointed. The process took weeks, but had no impact on the Rep’s fall productions.

With its mainstage out of commission until this week, the Long Wharf’s season-opener, Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf (starring John Douglas Thompson as Louis Armstrong… and Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser… and Miles Davis) took place at the theater’s Stage II space. It became the most financially successful play in Stage II’s 35-year history, trumping celebrity-studded productions there which starred Brian Dennehy, Lynn Redgrave or Tyne Daly.

Asked if he found the new, more open look of the lobby and the new seats inspirational, Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein—who’s personally directing half of the shows in the theater’s current season—says he doesn’t “feel that way yet.” For him, this project was expressly for the theatergoers. “It’s a more commodious, comfortable environment for our patrons.” Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting, who’s down to direct two shows this season, seconds that appraisal. “A lot of the changes are subtle, perceptible only to the designers.” That includes a new lighting rig in the slightly higher ceiling.

The changes mark a new chapter in the storied history of the Long Wharf. In recent years, the theater toyed with the idea of moving downtown. The current renovations came about after the Long Wharf extended its lease on the space it’s had since the mid-‘60s at the delivery docks of Long Wharf Terminal.

Mary Pepe, who was chair of the Long Wharf Theatre Board of Trustees when the renovations were first planned, noted on Tuesday how many different people and companies were involved in the transformation, adding that “the fact we had Kathleen Turner here waiting to open in a play was not TOO much pressure!”

Having Kathleen Turner in a new production of The Killing of Sister George is a great bit of serendipity for the reinvigorated Long Wharf. Turner has been doing a lot of theater in recent years, and this play hearkens back to the era in which Long Wharf was founded.

It’s always interesting to have well-known stars appearing in regional theater shows in New Haven, but more often the spectator sport for theatergoers is determining which exceptional talents deserve to go on to national stardom. Renewed attention to the theater buildings will only make the star-spotting process more comfortable.

The list of “we knew them when”s is long, and includes:

Mireille Enos of the TV series The Killing. She played Dolly in George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell at Yale Rep in 2001 and Lavinia in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra at Long Wharf Theatre in 2002.

Bronson Pinchot and Mark Linn-Baker, future co-stars of the TV sitcom Perfect Strangers, both attended Yale—Pinchot as an undergrad Theater Studies major, Linn-Baker in the Yale School of Drama.

In Living Color cast member and Chocolate News anchorman David Alan Grier barely mentions his Yale years in his memoir Barack Like Me—The Chocolate-Covered Truth, preferring to accent his streetwise younger years than his Ivy League period.

Kelsey Grammer appeared in a show on the Long Wharf mainstage at the same time that David Hyde-Pierce was in a Stage II production. Years later, the men would play siblings on the sitcom Frasier.

Both stars of The X-Files have trod New Haven stages: Gillian Anderson in The Philanthropist at Long Wharf and David Duchovny as a student actor at Yale.

Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and playwright/performer Christopher Durang were classmates at the Yale School of Drama in the early 1970s.

Lance Reddick of TV’s The Wire, Lost and Fringe made a strong impression as a gay businessman in Yale School of Drama classmate Edwin Sanchez’s play Trafficking in Broken Hearts at the Yale Cabaret.

Adam Richman gained fame not as an actor but as an eater, via his Man v. Food and Best Sandwich in America series on the Travel Channel. While he attended the Yale School of Drama, he was seen in over a dozen shows at the Yale Cabaret alone.

This season Paul Giamatti will return to Yale (where he studied as an undergraduate, then in the acting program of the Yale School of Drama) in the title role of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. While it took years for him to be granted leading man roles in films, at Yale he starred in Peer Gynt, The Love of Three Oranges and other major parts.

Paul’s elder brother Marcus Giamatti appeared on several TV shows, notably Judging Amy.

Who knows who we’ll see on a New Haven stage in the future? At the press conference celebrating the new Long Wharf mainstage, Leonard Tow (Claire Tow’s husband and the chairman of the Tow Foundation, which donated $1.25 million to the renovation) joked, “part of the deal with Gordon is that I get the leading role in Hamlet.” Paul Giamatti, look out!

Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.

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