It’s nearly Tony time, a period often described as Broadway’s Kentucky Derby, a race of thoroughbreds to determine the best work of the season in America’s most celebrated theatrical showplace. A horse race may also be the first thing that comes to mind when you see the title of my book, Wynn Place Show.
It’s about a great theatre and director you’ve probably never heard of, and how their remarkable legacy includes some of the work you’ll surely be hearing and reading about in the run-up to the June 8 Tony Awards, which will be broadcast on CBS at 8 p.m. EST.
The subtitle is A Biased History of the Rollicking Life & Extreme Times of Wynn Handman and the American Place Theatre. I’ll tell you more about that in a moment. But first, the horse race.
Say you’ve been fortunate enough to catch Denzel Washington’s ferocious, hypnotizing performance as Walter Lee Younger in the new Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun.
Somewhere during this drama about a middle-aged black man confronting the deck of cards — the many decks, really — stacked against him as he attempts to stake his claim on the American dream, somewhere in there, you may find yourself wondering: How did the soggy hero of Flight (just to mention Washington’s latest starring film role, as an alcoholic airline pilot) manage to appear as comfortable as he does before a live audience? So, you know, born to the stage.
We’ve seen his handsome face blown up to larger than life a hundred times on movie screens. But here, he not only draws our eyes and attention to him but, in the true measure of a stage star, to everyone around him as well. He (with the help of a superb supporting cast) makes this familiar tale fresh, contemporary, and vital.
So let’s play a Broadway variation on Six Degrees of Separation to find the connection between Washington the Hollywood movie star and Broadway’s Barrymore Theatre, where the Lorraine Hansberry drama is running through June 15.
Opening at this very same theatre in March 1959, A Raisin in the Sun was the first play by a black woman seen on Broadway. It also marked the debuts of Sidney Poitier, as Walter, and of a remarkable young black director named Lloyd Richards. Seven years later, Richards staged another breakthrough play, Who’s Got His Own, by Ron Milner — like Hansberry, an angry young black voice clamoring for attention.
This time, however, Richards was working three long bocks west of the Theatre District, in an Episcopalian church on 46th Street. St. Clement’s was serving double duty as home to The American Place Theatre that was run by a prominent acting teacher and theatrical firebrand named Wynn Handman.
By 1966, Handman had already established The American Place as a theatre where voices not usually heard in the Broadway precincts were finding a sympathetic home — not only writers of color, but female playwrights, “downtown” writers, and, perhaps most important, great American poets, novelists, and others who had shied away from writing for the stage.
And if Handman — a protégé of Sanford Meisner and one of Meisner’s star teachers at the Neighborhood Playhouse — saw himself as an alternative to the commercial theater, his own legacy has proven invaluable to the district. For the list of actors, writers, designers, and directors who came through Handman’s classes and the various stages of The American Place Theatre is a who’s who of Broadway and Hollywood:
Dustin Hoffman? Check. Frank Langella? Check. Faye Dunaway, Marian Seldes, and Olympia Dukakis? Check. Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, and Richard Gere? Check. Sam Shepard and John Malkovich? Check.
Oh, let’s not forget a student from Handman’s acting class named Denzel Washington. Six degrees, indeed. And remember, Washington is hardly a Broadway dilettante. He won a Tony for his performance in August Wilson’s Fences and played Brutus in a production of Julius Caesar.
As a Broadway theatergoer, you may have seen one of Frank Langella’s many brilliant performances — in Frost/Nixon or Dracula, to name just two quite disparate examples, or his mesmerizing performance earlier this season as Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. A young Langella starred in the very first production for The American Place, a triptych of plays called The Old Glory written by the poet Robert Lowell and staged, in his directing debut, by Dr. Jonathan Miller, who would go on to earn acclaim as one of the world’s great opera directors. The Old Glory opened at St. Clement’s in the fall of 1964.
Langella was also a Handman student. In Wynn Place Show, he recalls that “my six months with him was the greatest blessing a young, green kid could have had.” After his audition for The Old Glory, Langella looked nervously at Handman, Lowell, and Miller for some sign of approval.
“I remember Lowell looking at Miller with a look of excitement,” Langella says in Wynn Place Show. “Miller looked at Wynn and then Wynn said, ‘We want you to do this.’ I didn’t have to go home and wait for the call.”
The American Place later moved to its own home on 46th Street and Sixth Avenue, a space now run by the Roundabout Theatre Company. From the early 1960s through 2000, known as its “extreme times,” the company produced daring, original shows by the artists who went on to become legends.
The APT no longer exists, but its impact continues to be felt through the work of great writer-performers such as John Leguizamo — who gave Handman a hit with his solo show Mambo Mouth, and whose Broadway show Ghetto Klown is currently being shown on HBO — and Aasif Mandvi, the Daily Show regular who got his start with Sakina’s Restaurant at the American Place and whose starring role in the Pulitzer Prize–winning play Disgraced is expected to arrive on Broadway next season.
Watch for it, and when you see it, remember The American Place Theatre and visionaries like Wynn Handman, who have been so instrumental in keeping Broadway alive, ingenious, and challenging.
Author Jeremy Gerard has been a cultural journalist, editor, reporter, and critic since 1977. You can order Wynn Place Show in paperback or hardcover through the DramaBookShop.com, Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.