Theater for the New City, founded in 1971, is now in its 25th year at First Avenue and East Tenth Street. That milestone is celebrated in Toby Armour’s fable, “155 First Avenue (The Epic Adventures of the Theater for the New Syzygy).”
This play with songs is a whimsical and mythic treatment of the Off-off broadway miracle that happened on a small but wonderful piece of the Lower East Side. Its stories are real but its characters are made up. Sparkling with songs and incidental music by Peter Dizozza, it is stirred together by George Ferencz, one of Downtown’s most respected directors who actually staged the very first play in TNC’s First Avenue space.
TNC’s succession of deliverances, which brought it to its present prominence as New York’s most prolific presenter of new plays, is the plot of this fable. Outsmarting evictions, garbage haulers’ shakedowns, hooligans, floods and developers, a woman named Lily steers Theater for the New Syzygy through a sea of perils, buttressed by five ghosts: Molly Picon, Pieter Stuyvesant, Caroline Astor, Walt Whitman and her personal ghost, Jake the Peddler.
The play is largely set in the theater’s basement, which is the creative foundation of present-day TNC, filled with a rehearsal space, a subterranean cabaret theater for small experimental works, and the vast collection of props and costumes that make the place go ’round. Theater for the New Syzygy, the mythic organization of this play, is in financial peril and faces the possible loss of its home. But a developer appears to save the day, offering a handsome price for the building’s earth rights. His aim is to build the first underground mall in Manhattan. “Shopping will become the new underground theater,” he proclaims. The ghosts, who are happy with the theater, oppose this and so the battle lines are drawn between art and commerce.
Playwright Toby Armour points out that the land TNC sits on was actually part of Pieter Stuyvesant’s farm and this was part of the inspiration for the play. The space was the First Avenue Retail Market from 1938 to 1965 and this is the inspiration for the character of Jake the Peddler’s ghost.
The cast features Jennifer Koller as Lily and Douglas Stone as Jake the Peddler. The other actors–who double as ghosts, the developer and the theater’s staff–include John-Andrew Morrison, Anna Marie Sell, Chris Zorker, Jack Luceno and Dain Alexandra. Set design is by Mark Marcante, lighting design is by Alexander Bartenieff and costume design is by Sally Lesser.
Toby Armour’s TNC productions include “Shaggy Dog Princess,” “Flo and Max,” Fanon’s People,” Sky Woman Falling,” Voices from the Resplendent Island,” “Waiting” and “Hear Us!” All but two went on to further productions in the U.S. and abroad. Many of her plays tell the story of a community, whether it be the workers who built Hoover Dam in the ’30s, families of victims of street violence in New Haven, people in a small town on the border of Mexico in Arizona, a city recovering from a flood in upstate NY, or people struggling in a civil war in Sri Lanka. She has been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Arts Council, the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, the Arizona Arts Commission, and the Jerome Foundation. Her plays have been presented in NYC, LA, Boston, Denver, elsewhere in the U.S., as well as Scotland, Ireland and London. Her “Voices from the Black Canyon” was the winner of the Lewis National Playwriting Competition. A production of “Fanon’s People,” which debuted at TNC, won four Dramalog awards when produced at the Fountain Theater in LA. Her “Hear Us!” will be presented at the end of the month at the Melanie Rieger Conference in New Britain, CT. She is currently working on a play for the Fringe Theater of Key West, which will be presented in 2013. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild.
Armour writes, “It was at TNC that my plays first came indoors. TNC has been a home ever since, for my plays and for my education in theater. The learning curve continues. I am very grateful.”
George Ferencz (director) directed the TNC productions of “Lincoln on Hester Street,” “Fear Itself,” “Piecework,” “Delicate Feelings” and “The Space Show,” the first TNC production at 155 First Avenue. As a resident director at La MaMa, he has directed over 30 productions including most recently the blues opera “Conjur Woman” in New York and Rome. Ferencz has directed regionally at Actors’ Theater of Louisville, Berkeley Rep, Cleveland Playhouse, Pittsburgh Public, San Diego Rep and Syracuse Stage and has taught at Columbia, Yale and N.Y.U.
Peter Dizozza (Musical Settings, Piano) has accompanied plays by Maria Micheles (including “Night Park” at TNC), Leah Maddrie, Myron D. Cohen, Bruce Jay Friedman, Helen Slayton Hughes and Richard Vetere, and an oratorio score for the legendary “Legs Like These,” Neil Ericksen’s adaptation of the myth of Atalanta. He has also provided scripts and scores for a wide range of independent “Cinema VII” projects including “A Question of Solitude” and “TentagatneT,” an experimental play produced by La MaMa in their Experimenta! 2007 Program. Other song settings include poems and texts by Shakespeare, T.S.Eliot and Thomas Hardy.
Theater for the New City, 1555 First Avenue, will present the comedy May 3 to 20, 2012. The production schedule is Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM; Sundays at 3:00 PM. Tickets are $10 general admission. The box office is (212) 254-1109, www.theaterforthenewcity.net.