Risky Business

“If you’re providing a quality product, I believe the people will come,” says Alan Schuster, who’s negotiating to buy the Royal George Theatre Center at North and Halsted. The off-Broadway producer is still waiting for attorneys to iron out the details, but the sale is expected to go through this week; Schuster will reportedly pay nearly $4 million to the current owners, Robert Perkins and New York-based Jujamcyn Theatres, for the chance to prove that the Royal George’s main stage can thrive as it did in the late 80s. “It’s a fantastic theater in a great location,” says Schuster. Yet the city’s off-Loop commercial theater has devolved into a grab bag of performance events like the Briar Street Theatre’s Blue Man Group and the Mercury Theater’s thinly veiled concert act His Way: A Tribute to the Man and His Music. Serious plays with more than one actor, or even mildly substantive comedies, have become a rarity in the commercial venues outside the Loop. Fred Solari, general manager of the Athenaeum Theatre, couldn’t echo Schuster’s simple optimism: “You’d better be sure you know the market you’re in well if you’re gonna spend several million dollars buying a theater and producing here.”

The city’s off-Loop theater suffers from too many venues chasing too little viable product, and too few producers willing to invest in risky projects. “We’re overbuilt in the mid-size theater category for the amount of product and capital that’s available,” says Doug Bragan, who owns and operates the Ivanhoe Theater complex. Bragan’s 500-seat main stage hasn’t sustained a successful commercial play in years (though two modest productions in the smaller theaters, Late Nite Catechism and Hellcab, have proved long-running and consistent money makers with top tickets of only $25 and $15, respectively). Michael Leavitt of Fox Theatricals has produced some first-class work in the past, but he hasn’t scored an off-Loop hit since Lost in Yonkers filled the Royal George in 1992. Now Leavitt focuses on the big bucks, developing musicals for Broadway and road tours; Fox has relinquished Briar Street to the crowd-pleasing Blue Men and the Apollo Theater to producer Rob Kolson, who offers stand-up comedy and children’s theater. Producers Michael Cullen and Sheila Henaghan, a powerhouse off-Loop team in the 80s, built the Mercury as an outlet for their own shows but have yet to deliver.

Perkins and Jujamcyn were talking big when they announced their acquisition of the Royal George in spring 1994: Rocco Landesman, president of Jujamcyn, spoke boldly of bringing in pre-Broadway tryouts, important touring productions, and new works from major American playwrights. The main stage did host the Chicago production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, but more typical of the Jujamcyn era was fluff like Forever Plaid and I Hate Hamlet. “Jujamcyn has much bigger fish to fry,” observes Schuster, noting the company’s preoccupation with producing large-scale musicals for its handful of Broadway houses. Jujamcyn executives weren’t talking last week as they prepared to give Schuster the keys to the Royal George.

Schuster is no stranger to the midwest. He grew up in Peoria, attempted an acting career in Los Angeles, and then migrated to New York, where he got involved in writing and directing children’s theater. In the mid-70s he started producing, and in 1978 he bought and renovated the Orpheum Theatre in lower Manhattan. Seven years later he and a partner built the Minetta Lane Theatre, and a decade after that Schuster was involved in renovating the Union Square Theatre. His productions have ranged from David Mamet’s hard-hitting Oleanna to Paul Rudnick’s more lighthearted Jeffrey and the pure entertainment of Stomp. He thinks he’ll be able to persuade producers waiting for a choice off-Broadway venue to debut their work at the Royal George. The downside for them, of course, would be bombing here and having to take a tainted product to New York.

While Schuster settles into the Royal George, he’ll be able to learn from the sidelines as Perkins, Jim Freydberg, and William Suter try to turn Art, the much-hyped English hit by Yasmina Reza, into a hot property on the main stage. The Tony Award-winning play, about three friends who lock horns over the quality and value of a painting that’s nothing but a white canvas, has been doing near sell-out business since it opened on Broadway last winter. Whether the buzz will help the Chicago production, which opens in late September with a top ticket of $49.50, is anyone’s guess; if Art fails to find an audience here, Schuster could be looking to fill the main stage soon. He had little to say about the other three theaters in the complex, though he has hinted that he might transform the restaurant space into a fourth small theater. Just south of the Royal George, at Chicago and Halsted, the long-delayed Chicago Center for the Performing Arts may join the competition. Ivanhoe’s Doug Bragan thinks the herd will be thinned eventually: “There’s going to be a shakeout among the mid-size houses.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by David V. Kamba.