THE BROOKS ATKINSON THEATRE AT 256 West Forty-seventh Street opened in 1926 as the Mansfield Theatre, named in honor of the great classical American actor Richard Mansfield, who died in 1907. The theatre was another house built by the Chanin Brothers, construction tycoons, and it was designed by architect Herbert J. Krapp, who seemed to turn out a theatre a week in the Roaring Twenties. It followed the latest trends — only one balcony and an auditorium that was wide rather than deep. According to The New York Times, the attractive color scheme was old rose, gold, and light tan.
The opening bill at the Mansfield on the night of February 15, 1926, was a melodrama called The Night Duel, by Daniel Rubin and Edgar MacGregor, starring Marjorie Rambeau and Felix Krembs. The Times reported that there was an embarrassing bedroom scene in the second act, but that it seemed to please the audience. The play lasted only 17 performances. It was followed by three more failures: The Masque of Venice, with Arnold Daly, Osgood Perkins, Selena Royle, and Antoinette Perry (the Tony Awards were named in her honor); Schweiger, with Ann Harding as a wife who discovers that her husband (played by Jacob Ben-Ami) was a child murderer; and Beau-Strings, with Estelle Winwood as a flirt and Clarence Derwent (namesake of another theatre award, the one specifically for actors) as one of her interests.
The first moderate hit at the Mansfield opened on September 2, 1926: William Anthony McGuire’s If I Was Rich, starring vaudeville/musical comedy favorite Joe Laurie Jr. It ran for 92 performances.
Antoinette Perry again appeared at this theatre, in a long-running play with a curious history. The Ladder, a show about reincarnation, was disliked by the critics, but it was backed by a millionaire, Edgar B. Davis, who wanted the world to listen to the drama’s message. So he kept the play running for 789 performances (often allowing people in for free) and lost half a million pre-Depression dollars on it.
The Actors’ Theatre revived Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Beyond the Horizon (1926), and it ran for 79 performances. This production starred Robert Keith, Thomas Chalmers, and Aline MacMahon. The year ended with a revival of The Dybbuk.
Minnie Maddern Fiske revived Ibsen’s Ghosts for 24 performances in January 1927, but the rest of the year brought undistinguished productions.
The year 1928 began with something called Mongolia, which transferred here from the Greenwich Village Theatre but played for only three weeks. This was followed by Atlas and Eva, a comedy about a family called the Nebblepredders, which expired after 24 labored performances. Finally, on April 26, 1928, Rodgers and Hart came to the rescue with a sprightly musical about U.S. Marines stationed at Pearl Harbor. CalledPresent Arms, it produced one Rodgers and Hart classic: “You Took Advantage of Me.” This song was performed in the show by none other than Busby Berkeley (who also did the dances for the musical), and on the opening night he forgot the lyrics and made up some of the most foolish words ever sung on the American stage. Lew Fields, originally half of the vaudeville team Weber and Fields, produced this musical. He was the father of Herbert Fields, who wrote the show’s book. For the next year or so, this theatre was known as Lew Fields’ Mansfield Theatre. Present Arms ran for 147 performances.
The next Rodgers/Hart/Fields musical at this theatre was a disaster. Called Chee-Chee, it was inspired by a novel called The Son of the Grand Eunuch, but critics did not find this musical comedy about castration amusing. St. John Ervine, critic for The New York World, snapped: “Nasty! Nasty! I did not believe that any act could possibly be duller than the first — until I saw the second.”
Herbert and Dorothy Fields next provided a musical called Hello, Daddy, which was appropriate since their daddy, Lew Fields, again produced it and this time starred in it. It turned out to be the Mansfield’s biggest hit so far, running for 198 performances. The catchy music was the work of Jimmy McHugh.
On February 26, 1930, a classic of the American theatre opened at the Mansfield and won the Pulitzer Prize for the season. It was Marc Connelly’s magnificent adaptation of Roark Bradford’s stories from the Old Testament, “Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun.” Connelly’s adaptation was called The Green Pastures and it had an enormous cast, consisting entirely of black actors. Many Broadway producers turned the script down, saying that a play about Bible incidents as viewed by southern blacks would never make it on Broadway. They were wrong. Richard B. Harrison, a 66-year-old man who had never acted before, gave an enthralling performance as de Lawd God Jehovah. The Green Pastures played for 640 performances and was also successful down South and wherever it was staged throughout the world.
During the Great Depression, the Chanin Brothers lost all six of the theatres they had built, including the Mansfield. From early March of 1932 until December of that year, the house was dark. Then, on December 26, it reopened with Shuffle Along of 1933, a successor to two former black musicals with similar titles. Once again the show was the work of Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, and Flournoy Miller, who also appeared in the entertainment. Unfortunately, this edition ran for only 17 performances.
The Mansfield’s bookings in 1933-34 were sparse and undistinguished. A comedy called Page Miss Glory, directed by George Abbott, was a moderate hit in November 1934. The cast included James Stewart, Charles D. Brown, Jane Seymour, Royal Beal, and Dorothy Hall. Another moderate hit, Moon Over Mulberry Street, moved in from the Lyceum in 1935. It was followed by Osgood Perkins giving an excellent performance as a playwright who dreams that he is a character in his latest drama. The play was called On Stage, but it did not stay there for very long. It had a short run of 47 performances.
In January 1937, a lurid exposé of a Manhattan prostitution ring on Park Avenue called Behind Red Lights opened and stayed for 176 performances.
In 1940 Barry Fitzgerald, Sara Allgood, and Effie Shannon appeared in a successful revival of O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. This was followed by Separate Rooms, a popular comedy that moved here from Maxine Elliott’s Theatre. A West Coast revue, Meet the People, was a welcome Christmas present in 1940 and stayed for 160 performances. The cast included such bright talents as Jack Gilford, Nanette Fabares (later, Fabray), Jack Williams, Jack Albertson, and Peggy Ryan.
The years 1942 and 1943 brought mostly failures to this theatre. A popular wartime comedy, Janie, which had already played at three other theatres, moved in for a few months in 1943-44. Then, on August 30, 1944, a bonanza arrived. Anna Lucasta, a play by Philip Yordan, was first done by the American Negro Theatre in Harlem (although the playwright had originally written it to be played by white actors). It was so successful that producer John Wildberg transferred it to the Mansfield Theatre with a few changes in the script. Harry Wagstaff Gribble directed the superb cast, featuring Hilda Simms as the prostitute Anna, plus Canada Lee, Earle Hyman, and Frederick O’Neal. The drama ran for 957 performances.
Another hit arrived at this theatre on December 3, 1946. Actress Ruth Gordon switched to playwriting, and her autobiographical play Years Ago was warmly received. It starred Fredric March as her father, Florence Eldridge as her mother, and Bethel Leslie as Ruth Gordon Jones. The play recaptured Gordon’s high school days in Massachusetts when she startled her parents and friends by announcing that she was going to New York to be an actress. The nostalgic hit played for 206 performances.
A lively revival of Marc Blitzstein’s proletarian musical The Cradle Will Rock opened during the famed blizzard of December 26, 1947. The cast included such luminaries as Alfred Drake, Will Geer, Vivian Vance, Dennis King Jr., Estelle Loring, Jack Albertson, and Leonard Bernstein, but it lasted for only two weeks at this theatre before it moved to another house. Charles Boyer gave a powerful performance in Red Gloves in December 1948, but the Jean-Paul Sartre play was too talky and full of messages for the public. The brilliant revue Lend an Ear moved in from another theatre in 1949 and played for three months.
A mediocre play, All You Need Is One Good Break, was the last legitimate show to play the Mansfield. For the next decade, it functioned as a television playhouse.
When this theatre returned to legitimacy in 1960, producer Michael Myerberg was its owner/manager. The house was renovated and renamed the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in honor of the drama critic of The New York Times, who had retired from reviewing the previous spring. According to the PLAYBILL for that occasion, Atkinson was the first critic in recorded history to have a theatre named for him.
The Brooks Atkinson opened on September 12, 1960, with a revue called Vintage ’60. Although it was produced by David Merrick, with Zev Bufman, George Skaff, and Max Perkins, it lasted only eight performances. The next tenant, a comedy called Send Me No Flowers, with David Wayne and Nancy Olson, wilted after 40 performances.
On February 22, 1961, Neil Simon’s first play, Come Blow Your Horn, opened, and it flourished for 677 performances. The cast featured Hal March, Sarah Marshall, Warren Berlinger, Lou Jacobi, and Pert Kelton. In late 1962, Sidney Kingsley’s play Night Life, with Neville Brand, Walter Abel, Carmen Matthews, Carol Lawrence, Salomé Jens, and Bobby Short, presented a realistic nightclub onstage, but the drama lasted only 63 performances. Peter Ustinov’s comedy, Photo Finish, offered Ustinov as a writer with alter egos played by Dennis King, Donald Davis, and John Horton. Eileen Herlie, Jessica Walters, and Paul Rogers were also in the cast of this charade, which ran for 160 performances in 1963.
The year 1964 started out disastrously at the Brooks Atkinson. Tennessee Williams decided to rewrite his unsuccessful play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, and this time he turned it into, of all things, a Kabuki-style drama. The great Tallulah Bankhead made her last Broadway appearance in this error, and Tab Hunter, Ruth Ford, and Marian Seldes all went down the drain with her. It played only five times.
Josephine Baker made a dazzling personal appearance here in 1964, followed by a very controversial play, Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy, which accused Pope Pius XII of having failed to denounce the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Emlyn Williams played the pope. The drama was picketed by Catholic organizations, but it managed to run for 318 performances. Julie Harris, Estelle Parsons, and Lou Antonio were next in a comedy called Ready When You Are, C. B.! Harris was praised for her acting, but the show closed after 80 performances. A revival of The Glass Menagerie, with Maureen Stapleton, George Grizzard, Pat Hingle, and Piper Laurie, was well received and lasted 176 performances in 1965.
From November 1965 until November 1967, the Brooks Atkinson housed a series of undistinguished plays. Peter Ustinov’s Halfway Up the Tree, a generation-gap comedy — with the younger generation winning out — was moderately amusing, with Eileen Herlie, Anthony Quayle, Sam Waterston, and Graham Jarvis.
Peter Nichols’s macabre comedy A Day in the Death of Joe Egg had memorable performances by Albert Finney, Zena Walker, and Elizabeth Hubbard. Walker won a Tony Award as Best Supporting Actress in a Play.
Lovers and Other Strangers, a quartet of revue-style playlets by Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna, in which they appeared, was amusing in 1968, as was Jimmy Shine, a Murray Schisgal comedy starring Dustin Hoffman that ran for 153 performances in 1968—69.
After a series of mishaps, the Brooks Atkinson booked Lenny, a play about the late Lenny Bruce. Written by Julian Barry, the stinging biographical study gave Cliff Gorman a part that won him a Tony Award for his tour de force performance. Brilliantly directed by Tom O’Horgan, who also wrote the play’s music, Lenny presented a corrosive portrait of the drug-riddled, foulmouthed comic whose fame increased after he died. This “dynamite shtick of theatre,” as critic Clive Barnes labeled it, played for 453 explosive performances and was made into a film with Dustin Hoffman, directed by Bob Fosse.
In 1973 the Negro Ensemble Company transferred its successful play The River Niger from Off-Broadway to the Brooks Atkinson, where it remained for 280 performances. Written by Joseph A. Walker and directed by Douglas Turner Ward, who also appeared in the play, it won a Tony Award as the best drama of the season. In January 1974 Michael Moriarty gave a stunning performance as a homosexual hustler in Find Your Way Home, by John Hopkins, and was rewarded with a Tony. Jane Alexander costarred with him. The British comedy My Fat Friend, with Lynn Redgrave and George Rose, brought laughter to this theatre in 1974 and was followed by a revival of John Steinbeck’s powerful play Of Mice and Men, with James Earl Jones as Lenny, Kevin Conway as George, and Pamela Blair as Curley’s Wife.
On March 13, 1975, a comedy with only two performers — Ellen Burstyn and Charles Grodin — opened at the Brooks Atkinson and stayed for 1,453 performances, making it this theatre’s record holder. It was Bernard Slade’s Same Time, Next Year, a merry romp about a man and woman who meet every year in a motel for a sexual tryst, unknown to their respective spouses. Burstyn won a Tony Award for her beguiling performance.
Jack Lemmon returned to Broadway in another play by Slade — Tribute — in 1978, and his performance was rated better than the play. The British comedy Bedroom Farce had some hilarious moments and won Tony Awards for Michael Gough (Best Featured Actor in a Play) and Joan Hickson (Best Featured Actress in a Play).
Teibele and Her Demon, a drama by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Eve Friedman, did not succeed in 1979, despite Tovah Feldshuh in the starring role. But Talley’s Folly, one of Lanford Wilson’s cycle of plays about the Talley family, moved here from Off-Broadway’s Circle Rep with its original cast — Judd Hirsch and Trish Hawkins — and scored a triumph. Directed by Marshall W. Mason, the play won the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics Circle Award for best play.
Four unsuccessful shows followed: Tricks of the Trade (1980), with George C. Scott and his wife, Trish Van Devere; Mixed Couples (1980), with Julie Harris, Geraldine Page, and Rip Torn; Edward Albee’s adaptation of Lolita (1981), with Blanche Baker as the nymphet and Donald Sutherland as Humbert Humbert; and Wally’s Cafe (1981), with Rita Moreno, James Coco, and Sally Struthers.
The British play The Dresser (1981), by Ronald Harwood, starred Tom Courtenay as a dresser to an aging drunk actor, played by Paul Rogers, and the fascinating drama played for 200 performances. Christopher Durang’s Off-Broadway hit Beyond Therapy did not repeat its success on Broadway in 1982. Liv Ullmann and John Neville appeared in a revival of Ibsen’s Ghosts for a few weeks, and the British comedy Steaming, set in a women’s steam room, won a Tony Award for Judith Ivey as Best Featured Actress in a Play. Patrick Meyers’s thrilling K2 was about two mountain climbers — Jeffrey DeMunn and Jay Patterson — trapped on an icy ledge on the second-highest mountain in the world. The incredible set for this drama won a Tony Award for its designer, Ming Cho Lee.
Ben Kingsley starred in a one-man performance of Edmund Kean, followed by an enormous British hit, Noises Off, with Dorothy Loudon, Brian Murray, and Victor Garber, which ran here from December 1983 to April 1985. Later that year, Rex Harrison, Claudette Colbert, Lynn Redgrave, and George Rose cavorted in a revival of Frederick Lonsdale’s amusing trifle Aren’t We All? In December 1985 the British hit Benefactors, by Michael Frayn, set up shop here, starring Sam Waterston, Glenn Close, Simon Jones, and Mary Beth Hurt. The following December, Jackie Mason’s The World According to Me! had a highly successful engagement with the stand-up comic receiving a Special Tony Award for his galvanic comic performance. He played his trenchant political romp for more than a year. The show, which revitalized his career, was the first in a series of eight (so far) Mason comedy shows on Broadway.
In 1989 a revival of the 1942 play Café Crown, starring Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, won a Tony Award for the best scenic design of the season (Santo Loquasto). That same year, Peter, Paul & Mary: A Holiday Celebration on Broadway and Stephanie Mills Comes “Home” to Broadway brightened the Atkinson with limited runs, as did The Victor Borge Holiday Show on Broadway.
The Cemetery Club by Ivan Menchell had a short run here in 1990, and later that year Shadowlands, by William Nicholson, starred Nigel Hawthorne as British author C. S. Lewis and Jane Alexander as American poetess Joy Davidman. Hawthorne won a Tony as Best Actor in a play.
In 1992 Glenn Close, Gene Hackman, and Richard Dreyfuss starred in Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman, directed by Mike Nichols. Close won a Tony Award for her performance as a South American woman who captures and confronts the government agent who had once tortured her.
On October 7, 1993, the delightful Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Bock & Harnick’s witty She Loves Me moved here from the Criterion Center/Stage Right Theatre and continued its run.
On December 8, 1994, What’s Wrong With This Picture?, a new play by Donald Margulies, opened to mostly negative reviews, despite the presence of actress Faith Prince as a woman who returns to her family from beyond the grave. Jerry Stiller was in the cast and the offbeat comedy was directed by Joe Mantello. It closed after 12 performances.
In May 1995 a disastrous failure that seemed to be jinxed came to this theatre. It was a stage adaptation of the classic film On the Waterfront and bore the same title. Adapted by Budd Schulberg (who won an Academy Award for the film’s screenplay) and Stan Silverman, the play had nothing but trouble during previews. The original director was replaced by Adrian Hall, one actor was fired, and another suffered a heart attack and had to be replaced. It closed after eight performances at a loss of $2.6 million.
On April 30, 1996, a revised version of Sam Shepard’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Buried Child was presented by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, directed by one of its leading actors, Gary Sinise. Most critics felt that the playwright had improved the play about a family with a terrible secret, and it ran for 71 performances.
Taking Sides, an engrossing play about Wilhelm Furtwängler, the famed orchestra leader who refused to leave Germany but conducted for the Nazis, opened on October 17, 1996, and was praised for the electric performances of Daniel Massey as the conductor and Ed Harris as the American denazification officer who confronts him. Taking place in the American sector of occupied Berlin, the play by Ronald Harwood was a bigger hit in London. On Broadway it closed after 85 performances. It was followed in March 1997 by the musical Play On!, which updated Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to 1940’s Harlem with a score of Duke Ellington standards. Toplining the cast were André De Shields and Tonya Pinkins.
The next attraction at this theatre, in November 1997, was really more of a concert than a musical. Called Street Corner Symphony, it featured eight young singers/dancers performing pop and soul songs of the 1960s and 1970s under a streetlight in Gainesville, Florida. The show was performed without an intermission and with virtually no plot. It lasted 79 performances.
A new production of Frederick Knott’s 1966 thriller Wait until Dark arrived in 1998, starring the Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino and film actress Marisa Tomei, but it failed to achieve the success of the original, which ran for 373 performances. Lee Remick had thrilled audiences in 1966 as a blind victim stalked by drug dealers, but the acting in this production, especially by Tarantino, was severely criticized. It closed after 65 performances.
On April 8, 1999, a highly praised production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh arrived from London, where it had scored an enormous success, first at the Almeida, then at the Old Vic. Kevin Spacey, who was the acclaimed Hickey of the revival, repeated his performance on Broadway and was joined by four actors from the British cast. The production, scheduled for a limited engagement, received five Tony Award nominations: Best Actor (Spacey); Best Revival of a Play; Best Director (Howard Davies); Best Scenic Design (Bob Crowley); and Best Lighting Design (Mark Henderson).
Roundabout Theatre Company returned to the Atkinson in spring 2000 with a short-lived revival of Uncle Vanya starring Derek Jacobi. In December 2000 the Atkinson hosted a rare musical, Jane Eyre, with a sweeping score by Paul Gordon and a grand performance by Marla Schaffel as Charlotte Brontë’s resolute heroine.
The Atkinson next hosted a starry November 1, 2001, revival of Michael Frayn’s backstage farce Noises Off, with a cast that featured Patti LuPone, Faith Prince, Richard Easton, Peter Gallagher, Edward Hibbert, and, in a Tony-winning performance, Kate Finneran. Directed by Jeremy Sams, it drew laughs for 348 performances.
Even after 2,400 years, Greek playwright Euripides had another hit in December 2002 with a revival of his tragedy Medea, in a bloody production from the Abbey Theatre of Dublin starring Fiona Shaw as the murderous mom. It was a hot ticket for its limited run of 78 performances.
The Look of Love, a May 2003 lackluster revue of pop tunes by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, did the songwriters no favors and lasted just 49 performances despite a cast that included Liz Callaway, Janine LaManna, Rachelle Rak, and Capathia Jenkins.
Jackie Mason, who had revived his career at the Atkinson in 1986 with the first in a series of hit stand-up comedy shows on Broadway, tried expanding the concept in November 2003, hosting his own mini vaudeville revue, titled Jackie Mason’s Laughing Room Only, with original songs by Doug Katsaros. Critics shrugged and Mason departed after 14 performances, his shortest Broadway run.
Tom Stoppard’s complex, brilliant drama Jumpers got an April 25, 2004, revival (via London’s Royal National Theatre) that thrilled and perplexed audiences during its run. David Leveaux directed a cast that included Simon Russell Beale and Essie Davis. The drama about philosophy, gymnastics, and the beauty of the moon completed a limited run of 89 performances.
The Atkinson had enjoyed the work of playwright Michael Frayn in a playful mood in Noises Off. On November 18, 2004, the theatre hosted one of the ambidextrous author’s serious works, Democracy, about a communist spy who infiltrated the office of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt in the 1960s. James Naughton played Brandt; Richard Thomas played his secretary and betrayer. Also in the cast were Robert Prosky, Michael Cumpsty, and John Dosset, and the production earned a Tony nomination as Best Play during its five-month run. In a sad coda, Broadway composer Cy Coleman collapsed and died after attending the opening-night performance of Democracy.
Hal Holbrook brought his touring-staple solo show Mark Twain Tonight! to the Atkinson beginning June 9, 2005, for its third and, as it turned out, last visit to Broadway, going back to the 1960s. The master actor impersonated the master storyteller for a limited run of 15 performances.
“Three’s Company” actress Suzanne Somers walked audiences through her tabloidy life story in her July 2005 solo show The Blonde in the Thunderbird, a reference to a career-making cameo in the film American Graffiti. In possibly a first for Broadway, she at one point displayed merchandise as she had on a cable TV shopping network. Critics were aghast and shot it down after nine performances.
Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, who had enjoyed a megahit with The Producers and who were friends offstage, reteamed for a revival of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple that earned mixed reviews but sold out virtually its entire extended limited run from October 27, 2005, to June 4, 2006.
Lightning failed to strike twice for director/choreographer Twyla Tharp, who had enjoyed tremendous success with her 2002 Billy Joel dance musical Movin’ Out but who was unable to work the same magic with the oeuvre of another singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan, in 2006’s The Times They Are A-Changin’. Audiences liked the music, though it was sometimes odd to hear the songs sung by someone other than Dylan. Tharp’s story about an intergenerational uprising at a traveling circus left audiences perplexed. Times folded after 28 performances.
Kevin Spacey was a plaintive James Tyrone Jr. in Howard Davies’s April 9, 2007, revival of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten. His costar, English actress Eve Best, took the Drama Desk Award for her performance as Josie Hogan, and the show completed a limited run of 71 performances.
A revival of the rock ’n’ roll musical Grease chose its leads via an “American Idol”-style TV reality show titled “You’re the One That I Want.” Winners Max Crumm and Laura Osnes opened a 554-performance run on August 19, 2007.
Big hair, spandex, and power chords abounded in Rock of Ages, an absurdly entertaining celebration of the excesses of 1980’s rock music, which opened April 7, 2009. Librettist Chris D’Arienzo wrote a story about two aspiring rockers who get involved in saving a music club from a villainous German developer. Into every crack in this story D’Arienzo wedged a vintage hit song by groups including Journey, Bon Jovi, Styx, Twisted Sister, Poison, Asia, and other headbangers. The audience was allowed to order drinks from their seats, and ticket holders were given lighter-shaped mini flashlights to wave during favorite songs, rock-concert style. A transfer from Off-Broadway, the show was a surprise hit and was nominated for five Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical (American Idol finalist Constantine Maroulis). It ran at the Atkinson until January 2011, when it transferred to the smaller Helen Hayes Theatre. The game of musical theatres didn’t stop there, however, as Rock of Ages was replaced by Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles on Broadway, that was itself transferring from the Neil Simon Theatre.
The Brooks Atkinson is owned and operated by the Messrs. Nederlander. Its intimate ambience makes it ideally suited for dramas and comedies, though in recent years it has become the choice of rock musicals.