Sooner or later some glib critic is going to proclaim that the most dramatic moment of his evening at McCarter’s new Roger Berlind Theater was the chase for the last available parking space within decent walking distance.
I was tempted Monday, September 8, as I made my first pass around the new $14 million theater addition, searching for a place to park for the 5:30 p.m. curtain raising and dedication of the 380-seat space where McCarter — in partnership with the Princeton University program in theater and dance — hopes to produce smaller, more intimate, and more ground breaking works than might otherwise appear on the big stage.
With a host of events already scheduled at each venue on the same dates, the management talks about staggered curtain times to ease the traffic crunch. Still, one can’t help but imagine some of the McCarter faithful finding that their favorite parking space has been taken. I finally found a space on Alexander Street between Dickinson and Mercer, across from No. 29, where one of those elegant Steadman homes is going through the ritual of having its front porch roof propped up by ungainly rafters while its elegant pillars are being replaced.
From there it was just a short walk to the theater, where the new house was almost filled to capacity for the ceremony featuring Joann Mitchell, president of McCarter’s trustees; Shirley Tilghman, university president; Michael Cadden, theater and dance program director; Emily Mann, McCarter’s artistic director; Roger Berlind, the Princeton alumnus (Class of ’52) and Broadway producer who is the new theater’s prime benefactor; and Paul Muldoon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Princeton professor.
But before one of them uttered a word, and no doubt to set the tone for the new theater, in which experimental theater might be the norm, the ceremony began with an unexpected twist: With the presenters seated on stage, the house announcer made the usual, desultory announcements about refraining from using recording devices, beepers, cell phones, etc. during the proceedings. At that point, a cell phone began to ring through the public address system, and a conversation became audible to the full house.
As the spotlight combed the audience, the conversation drifted from the ridiculous to the absurd. It was an act, of course; snippets of "Unwrap Your Candy," a comedy (I assume) by the hot Off-Broadway playwright Doug Wright, with lines read by the notable playwright Christopher Durang, among others. But as the program wore on, the snippets continued with conversations overheard, more cell phone calls, rude reactions to such calls, and so forth. By the third interruption, I began to time them: Over 2 minutes for one; over 90 seconds for another. It reminded me of many a Saturday Night Live sketch that could never find a quick end.
To me the winning performances at this inaugural event were from people who weren’t even trying to act. Shirley Tilghman credited her friend Peter Benchley with the classic theater joke about George Bernard Shaw inviting Winston Churchill to his play opening and saying "bring a friend, if you have one." To which Churchill replied, "I can’t make opening night, but I’ll come on the second night, if you have one."
Emily Mann permitted herself to "speak from the heart" and said that this theater was a realization of a dream that began 30 years ago, when she worked with Tyrone Guthrie. It was also a realization of her late father’s dream — he was an academician who wanted to merge the academy with the theater. "He would be very happy today."
Roger Berlind brought an ear-to-ear smile to the podium. "When I was thinking about what I would say, I thought it would be important to be humble and so forth. But who am I kidding? I love having my name on this place." And still smiling he acknowledged the support of his wife and son — "they were totally supportive and stood by me while I decimated their inheritance."
And Muldoon the poet put theater in the context of the world stage with his poem: "When the theatre-of-war’s the theatre that’s never dark . . ., when presidents take their cue from a few oil-oligarchs . . ., it’s all the more important to raise the curtain . . . Where our minds are unveiled and our hearts unwrapped from the first run-through until the end of the run."
All that stage business from Doug Wright, the breaking of the fourth wall, bothered me at first. But then I reconsidered: If the small space is intended to inspire, as Tilghman said, "ground-breaking dreams," why shouldn’t some ground be broken at the dedication ceremony.
At the reception after the dedication, I pondered the number of gray beards in attendance and the large proportion of 60 and 70-somethings on the benefactors’ list. Like those supporting columns on the Steadman house on Alexander Street, these pillars of McCarter will not be around forever. The new space may be what it takes to bring in some new faces.