Nowadays it seems like good architecture has to turn heads to be noticed, putting a burden on talented architects to provide flashy performance before thoughtful execution. And so it is a pleasure when one of the world’s most renowned, and scrutinized, architects, Frank Gehry, designs a quietly potent new kind of space as he has at the Pershing Square Signature Center on an Off-Broadway stretch of 42nd Street.
That there is little razzle-dazzle is just as well, because at the Signature the play’s the thing. And it always has been since founder and artistic director James Houghton established the company’s mission in 1991 to blast through the canons of living playwrights (Edward Albee, John Guare, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, among others) and to build audiences with affordable tickets (there are $20 seats for all productions).
The Signature’s new home exudes a workshop aesthetic and energy. The grand staircase is made of plywood, bolts and beams are visible throughout, the floors are all concrete, and sprayed-on stencils of playwright’s silhouettes decorate the sheetrock walls. It’s jazzy and mutable. That the lobby’s prime real estate is turned over to a vast open space ramping across two levels—with a bar, cafe tables, shop, window seats, couches and armchairs—sends an equally clear message that the audience is part of the production of that longest-running hit known as theater-going.
The three theaters—plus studio theater and rehearsal studio—all fall into the category of small Off-Broadway venues; the largest has 299 seats; the jewel-box and black-box theaters hold 199 seats each. Still it’s a big leap for the Signature from its former home base, where there were just 160 seats.
Along with the 100-seat theater now nearing completion on the roof of the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center and the 299-seat Theatre for a New Audience under construction within Brooklyn’s BAM Cultural District—both designed by New York architect Hugh Hardy—it is also a gain for New York’s theater scene, particularly that segment devoted to the city’s teeming population of newcomers, strivers and on-the-verge or comeback talents.
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box, where Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot” is now playing, is the most charming and successful of the Signature’s three theaters in the way it matches a true quality of intimacy to the smallness of scale. The edges of the space curl around to embrace the seats that appear more clustered than in rows. It’s a sensation reinforced by a balcony braced with overlapping, irregularly shaped panels. Mr. Houghton has described them as torn pieces of paper, perhaps in reference to Mr. Gehry’s reputed method of crumpling scraps to model his architecture’s curves.
The infinitely flexible Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre—with enough metal scaffolding to strap on a herd of horse puppets and folding-chair seats flanking both sides of a patch of stage—feels just as a black box should, raw and ready for conversion. And the 299-seat End Stage Theater is Broadwayesque in its largesse, particularly the stage itself. For the current performance of Edward Albee’s “The Lady from Dubuque,” an entire ranchhouse appears to spread out, a suburban forest glimpsed beyond its windows. The rake of the auditorium seating is just as generous, and the stained-plywood walls cut into loosely rearranged jigsaw pieces shade pleasantly from honey hues at the back to dark mahogany at the stage’s edge, a playful spatial echo of the houselights dimming. Would that part of the careful rethinking of the theater experience had included allowing more leg room between rows: If you are more than 5 feet 10 inches tall, expect to feel cramped.
For years, the Signature bounced around, renting space from the Public Theater downtown or holing up in a black box on Bond Street and then on far, far West 42nd Street. In 2004, the company was selected to be part of a revitalizing cultural mecca promised for Ground Zero. Mr. Gehry would be the architect of a new $700 million performing arts center, and the Signature would share marquee space with the Joyce Theater. But by 2007, with the whole site mired in controversy, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. decided to cut costs and disinvite the Signature, a blessing in disguise.
As it happened, development rights for a large parcel between Dyer Avenue and Tenth Avenue on 42nd Street hinged on including a performing-arts element to make up for two Off-Broadway houses that had been razed to allow for a subway extension. The Signature stepped right in, and Mr. Gehry stuck with the company, though they now faced the far more complicated job of fitting the theaters and all adjacent support spaces between the structural columns of a 62-story tower. Working with H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture as architects of record guaranteed finely tuned theatrical spaces. Hugh Hardy is a practiced hand at New York theater-making, having designed the original Joyce Theater, BAM’s Harvey Theater and many others. Collaboration may well be all the rage in architecture right now, but it’s still rare to see such high-powered talents giving each other an assist, making the Signature all the more notable.
And so it’s hardly worth complaining that the cafe chairs make an awful screech when dragged on those concrete floors, and that there’s still a line to the ladies room at intermission when the audiences of two of the three theaters come out to stretch. A bit of hubbub is, in fact, very much on the program, and it’s right that the architecture should reflect on that rather than on itself.