It was the opening night of ‘Plaza Suite’ and the set’s bathroom door had to stay shut – a stubborn comedic obstacle for Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, who play parents of a bride who locked herself inside on her wedding day.
Reinforced to within an inch of its life, the door had held all the previews. But on that March evening, the frame around it collapsed, derailing the plot and amusing the crowd.
“Opening night!” The aggrieved designer of the set, John Lee Beatty, later said. “I wish the audience hadn’t enjoyed it so much.”
Of course the spectators would have. One of the main joys of personal theater attendance is the ever-present awareness that the performance can go wrong one way or another. And in the Broadway season that followed such a long, stark pandemic hiatus, simply encountering a beautiful set, even one that’s temperamental, could be its own source of delight.
In “The Skin of Our Teeth,” the millennium-hopping Thornton Wilder game that begins in the Ice Age, the door is deliberately broken: it’s the only way for a family with a pet dinosaur and a pet mammoth to get to the huge doll creatures inside. and out of their house.
The next act takes place in Atlantic City, during the time of the Great Flood, where actors go down a giant amusement park slide. The set designer, Adam Rigg, receives daily vain pleas from onlookers eager to ride it too. You don’t get much further from digital performance than that kind of kinetics.
Out of all the great sets this season, we picked five that are currently on stage, which made us enjoy being in the room with them – the kind of designs that would lose something essential if you tried to put them on camera. With a photographer taking on the paradoxical task of capturing that living energy, we chatted with every designer: Christine Jones and Beatty, both two-time Tony Award winners; and Anna Fleischle, Scott Pask (triple winner), and Rigg, all current nominees.
These are edited excerpts from those conversations.
American Airlines Theater
With its dreamy arc of objects above it, a kitchen is the scene of 90 years in the life of an ordinary woman named Ernestine, played by Debra Messing in Noah Haidle’s philosophical comedy.
Christine Jones: Some of the items [suspended above the kitchen] are things that are specifically referenced, such as the blue ribbon of Ernestine’s hair. There are kitchen elements, as if someone releases the gravity button and things go out of the kitchen into the air. And then there are the ephemeral postcards or love letters or musical instruments. There is a teddy bear. Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” is up there. tickets. They are the things you collect in your life.
The Tony Awards of 2022
This year’s awards, which will be presented on June 12, are the first to recognize shows that have opened after the long pandemic closure of Broadway theaters.
I wanted the set to evoke the ephemeral, celestial, existential spirit of our time on Earth and our time in different spaces. I was so moved by Noah’s writing. He talks about the ingredients of the birthday cake, and [Ernestine] says it’s made of atoms and stardust. I feel like our memories are like that. When we think about the different moments in our lives, it is these objects and the ephemeral phenomena that are both witness and ghosts of what is happening. I had a clear picture of this environment imbued with light and space and time and eternity – from the moment I read the script.
We’re talking about the auditory acoustics of a room, but I think there’s also visual acoustics. In what ways can I shape space to create a sense of intimacy and connection? Whatever the play, I’m always interested in that reciprocal energy cycle between the audience and the performers.
Suite 719 at the Plaza Hotel in late 1960s Manhattan is the setting for the farcical events of three short plays by Neil Simon, now starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, who at one point find themselves on a windowsill. dare. During the shutdown, the set lay dormant on the Hudson Theater stage, where someone apparently tried out their sleeping quarters.
John Lee Beatty: What was I going for? Something tasty. Like wanting to be in the suite with them. When I was offered the show, I happened to watch “North by Northwest,” which of course has a scene in a suite in the Plaza, and duh: a bell rang. I once also won a ticket to one of these galas for a weekend at the Plaza. It was when the Plaza was winding down, but I got a good idea of its size.
The suite is quite accurate. It’s a little smaller and a little more delicate just because Sarah is a little smaller and a little more delicate. It’s funny because people think I’m a documentary filmmaker, but I’m not. I eliminate many details that would disturb people. Like plastic trash cans. I even invented an official “Plaza Suite” trash can with its own logo, and I invented a fire screen with an embossed “Plaza Suite” logo.
There is only one major cheat. I have added an extra window. I thought Matthew Broderick is going to come up with something. Sure enough, they figured out Matthew fighting the pigeons. There’s really good laughs in the show.
No one would want to see a real bed on stage. They look huge. But someone slept in the bed while we were closed for two years. We came in and the bed was spoiled. Well, I don’t blame them. I mean, it’s kind of a Midtown hotel room. I don’t know what they thought of the sloping floor, but I hope they weren’t drunk.
John Golden Theater
There’s a lot of sleight of hand in Martin McDonagh’s somber play about an executioner who, after one last hang up, goes to run a pub. The set is also something of an imposter, shifting in ways the audience doesn’t see coming, from a prison to the pub to a cafe on a rainy day.
Anna Fleischle: It’s so shocking to watch a play where someone is executed within the first five minutes. What we have seen is what our main character has done to earn his living. I wanted to find a metaphorical journey – how to take an audience out of that shock, and give it space to really let that sink in. And in that space, the entire history of this person’s life rises into the air and basically hangs over his head for the rest of the story. Everything after that is in its shadow.
It’s a very dark story. At the same time, [McDonagh] manages to keep introducing humor. The opening of the cafe [set] has a little bit of that, kind of a spark in the eye about it. But the scene itself is so lofty; to me it always felt very cinematic – that it would be exciting to make this little box as if it were actually a frame in film. But you’re in the theater, and you’ve got the rain, and you’ve got the noise, and the place is kind of – it’s got grease all over, and it smells like old grease. You just get that one glimpse of this place.
The nominees for 2022. The race for best new musical at the Tony Awards – traditionally the most financially advantageous award – this year is a broad six-way competition. Here’s a closer look at each nominee:
It’s always a pretty important choice: how abstract or real do you want to be? What the realism helps with is that people think they know exactly where they are. It gives a feeling of comfort. And then you get a story like this. I like to do that.
Circle in the square
A 1970s Chicago junk store stocked with over 4,000 props sets the stage for David Mamet’s gritty comedy, starring Laurence Fishburne, Sam Rockwell and Darren Criss as hapless crooks plotting a break-in.
Scott Pask: I was thrilled when they told me the space would be Circle in the Square. It’s almost in the round. Since the audience goes down to enter the auditorium, I wanted the characters to do the same – create this underground store and have a streetscape at eye level outside the store that we observe. These petty criminals, I wish they were below par because it’s such a lame joke.
This is 20th century garbage hanging from the ceiling. There we can map our youth. I mean, at least I can. These emblematic memorabilia from the World’s Fair are on the cashier’s desk, and they are completely blown away by Sam. These very valuable things are simply thrown away completely.
Creating a ceiling within that became my biggest goal. I really wanted compression and weight. There is a kind of bend to it. It’s a little under the weight of all that stuff. When you’re in those first five or six rows, you look up and that ceiling feels like it’s hanging over you.
Vivian Beaumont Theater
‘The skin of our teeth’
Lileana Blain-Cruz’s revival of Thornton Wilder’s apocalyptic comedy fills the expanse of the Vivian Beaumont Theater with bold colors and outsized scale as it follows an American family through various historical disasters.
Adam Rigg: Lileana and I have talked a lot about maximalism and how, at least where we’ve come out of something like the pandemic we’re in, we crave excesses to wake us up again. Our intention was: [for the audience] to just be like, “Oh, this is why I go to the theater — to be overwhelmed.”
We talked a lot about [the characters in this production] being a black family and when was the time when blackness turned into the american home landscape. We thought about school integration in the 50’s and a little bit in the 60’s with the Black Power movement. Black wealth has been around for a long time in our country. But when was it at the forefront of white culture to talk about it? And so we chose the mid-century.
There are all these anachronistic elements in it, like old scrolls. All vases are like West African carvings. Even the proscenium arch has West African carvings in it. We always play in this timeless feel, but we wanted people to say, “Oh, I want to live in that room, because it looks cute.”
The biggest compliment I get is when people say, “I wanted to be in that, I wanted to live in it, I wanted to walk in it, I wanted to ride in it.” This desire to get up and get into this space is, I think, fascinating at a time when we’re just staring at screens.