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Free Radical

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Liev Schreiber as Macbeth, at a preview in Central Park last week.  

Eustis isn’t interested in continuing the boom-and-bust cycle, and anyway, he wouldn’t be allowed to. When the board hired Manus, it gave the executive director authority equal to that of the artistic director, in part to impose fiscal discipline. A major shakeup followed her arrival—firings, resignations, a complete turnover in the development office—as did scattered complaints about her brusque style. But she’s got the money flowing again. Some sponsors who had turned away have been wooed back, and individual giving has increased 80 percent. There are now 70 donor events a year, up from 30, with one almost every night in the park. She’s also received promises from the city of $13 million toward a $16.5 million renovation of the building on Lafayette Street. New features include a lobby redesign, a patrons’ lounge, a café, and replacements for the medieval bathrooms.

But with a business executive (who has scant theater background) newly ascendant, and an artistic executive who’s really fond of infrastructure, what happens to the Public’s freewheeling vibe, what Wolfe calls its “wonderful dance” of order and anarchy? Several artists who have worked there worry that he will opt for safe choices, importing a regional-theater mind-set to the Public; as one puts it, “Organizational concerns might start to trump artistic concerns.” In other words, under Eustis, the competent manager and savvy fund-raiser, the place could become prosperous but dull—the antithesis of the Public’s usual profile.

“I firmly believe there’s a way to combine the raffishness with a stable infrastructure,” says Eustis. In the Public’s best days, that was its specialty; Papp drew crowds and kept the energy level high by putting on diversified work—a lot of it. To that end, Eustis wants to boost the production volume. While Macbeth readies for its opening, he has jammed Lafayette Street with David Hare’s extended Iraq-war docudrama Stuff Happens; two new plays incubated under Wolfe, José Rivera’s School of the Americas and Diana Son’s Satellites; and a workshop of King Lear starring Kevin Kline. Eustis also volunteered to host the Hip-Hop Theater Festival, even though Sternberg warned that the staff was stretched too thin to manage it. When he overruled her, she proposed he make T-shirts for the crew that read I’M SORRY ABOUT JUNE, COMRADE over his signature. (Though he today calls himself a “radical Democrat,” Eustis was a red-diaper baby, and he still calls lots of people “comrade”: actors, staff, the receptionist . . .)

Volume isn’t everything, of course. The work needs to be varied enough that the lobby crowd looks, as Wolfe always says, “like a subway station.” So Eustis is moving in two directions at once. He wants first to reconnect with the history of what is now the longest-running major theater in town. Hare is already back, and John Guare will soon return for the first time since 1977, with a play slated to star Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def. He is even planning to have Akalaitis workshop Bacchae.

Assuming that the brand-name talent will deliver, he still faces a second, and greater, challenge: finding the new writers and actors who will define his Public. Eustis can make plenty of bets, since at the Public, only 35 percent of revenue is earned, the other 65 being contributed—the opposite of most places. Success depends on whether those bets turn out to be any good—if his taste suits the place. Last year, he made a smart call in producing Rinne Groff’s The Ruby Sunrise, even if his own direction was so-so. Next season brings new plays by Julia Cho and actor–writer–slam poet Daniel Beaty, among others.

He’s also bringing in his old collaborator Tony Kushner, with whom he’s had a long and sometimes difficult relationship (see “Backstory"). In August, Eustis will bring Kushner’s new translation of Brecht’s Mother Courage to the park. It will be directed, in a small-world sort of way, by Wolfe.

If Stuff Happens is his ideal downtown show, Mother Courage may be the model for the park. It’s inextricably rooted in the world today, which is key to his vision for all Public shows. It also brings a great actress, Meryl Streep, to a stage that Eustis wants to make an essential destination for great actors. (Brian Dennehy turns up next summer; he’s “leaning towards” playing Falstaff.) And it marks Kushner’s Delacorte debut—his official debut, anyway. Three years ago, he rewrote a speech—in Elizabethan verse—that Wolfe and director Mark Wing-Davey dropped into Henry V to ground the play more completely in our Iraq misadventure. Nobody spotted it.

The weather is so beautiful on the night of Macbeth’s final dress rehearsal you almost forget the raccoons and bugs and storms. As 200 or so invited guests take their seats, Eustis has a big hug for Sam Mendes, a “recent friend.” Joe Papp liked to make brave, go-for-broke gambles; on nights like this, you realize how resoundingly his biggest one paid off.


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