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Wynn Handman didn’t know what hit him. The legendary acting coach and co-founder of the American Place Theatre, which helped launch Faye Dunaway, Eric Bogosian, and John Leguizamo, had more than two years left on his lease at the funky, high-ceilinged Sixth Avenue space where his tiny nonprofit group had performed for almost three decades. But when he called his landlord earlier this year to see about an extension, Handman was told that the building’s new owner had already handed the space to the Roundabout Theatre Company – a bigger nonprofit with much deeper pockets. Handman wasn’t even invited to haggle. “This is the reality of the theater-and-real-estate situation right now,” the teacher of Richard Gere, Dustin Hoffman, and Alec Baldwin muses dejectedly. “I’m considered a pioneer. I started in ‘62 in a moribund church. We used the word alternative then, and we stayed that way. They have an affluent board of directors, members who know people in real estate, and I suppose one of them knew about the new owner.”

As it turns out, Handman guessed right. Todd Haimes, the Roundabout’s artistic director, says the building’s new owner happens to be a longtime subscriber. It’s only the latest exercise in empire-building for Haimes: In the same decades that American Place was staying alternative, the Roundabout traded up from the basement of a Chelsea supermarket to Union Square and finally to Broadway, almost tripling in size to become the second-largest nonprofit theater group in the country (the largest being Lincoln Center Theater). Haimes, who just this summer reopened the old Selwyn as the American Airlines Roundabout Theatre, explains the annexation of the American Place by saying, “We were desperate for a second stage. With 40,000 subscribers, you need a certain size just to get the people through the run.”

The theater world hasn’t seen this kind of manifest destiny since Joseph Papp, already ensconced at his Public Theatre complex in the East Village, took over Lincoln Center Theater for four tumultuous seasons in the seventies. These days, nonprofits thrive by targeting mainstream audiences with revivals that commercial producers are too scared to mount, like the Roundabout’s 600-seat Cabaret or this season’s Follies. While Papp had A Chorus Line and other hits that migrated to Broadway, everything the Roundabout does in the new American Airlines Theatre is, by definition, a Broadway show. Rocco Landesman, the outspoken commercial producer and head of Jujamcyn Theaters, recently sniped in the Times that nonprofits like the Roundabout had lost their edge, becoming little more than incubators for commercial hits. To some, this might be stating the obvious – are nonprofits supposed to just ignore audiences? – but Haimes thinks Landesman may be missing the point. “To me, our evolution has been entirely organic,” Haimes says. “If Rocco wants to do Chekhov, do Chekhov. It’s not like we stole Uncle Vanya.

Silver-haired and 44, with an M.B.A. from Yale, Haimes isn’t of the same experimental-theater generation as Handman or the late Papp. His parents, he says, were shocked at how he decided to use his degree. But he has brought a businessman’s bent to the job: He helped rescue the Roundabout from bankruptcy in the mid-eighties by cultivating new audiences and staging risky shows with cusping stars, like Anna Christie with Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson, A View From the Bridge with Anthony LaPaglia, and Three Sisters with Calista Flockhart (who left two weeks early to do a certain TV pilot for David E. Kelley). “I’d love to see the theater get involved in developing new musicals,” Haimes says, a bit worried, “but that’s very, very expensive. Being a neurotic Jew, I feel much less comfortable with success than with failure. When I succeed, I think it’s just farther to fall.”

With two years left on his lease, Handman vows that “the American Place Theatre will go on. We’re now actively looking for another space. Each of us nonprofit institutions has a vision of what it does – and we are two very different institutions.” Haimes, for his part, has some sympathy for the colleague he’s unseated. “The real-estate crunch has made it difficult, particularly for the small theaters,” Haimes says. “I’ve spent more time on real estate in this job than I have on any of the shows. I mean, art is irrelevant if you’re out of business.”

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