I had written for my college newspaper, so it didn’t seem a stretch in December of 1986 when my high school friend and newly installed editor of the West Side Spirit, Tom Allon, asked me to do an article. The topic was the Irish Arts Center, where Frank and Malachy McCourt had recently performed. That led to features about Second Stage, Ensemble Studio Theater and the Pearl Theater Company.
I guess Tom liked my style, since in May of 1987 he asked if I would become the West Side Spirit’s theater editor. I’d alternate a column of reviews with theater-related articles that I’d assign and then edit. Thus started a wonderful 18-month association with the Spirit that ended only when I moved to New Orleans.
Among the highlights of my tenure were seeing the original productions of Driving Miss Daisy with Dana Ivey and Morgan Freeman, George C. Wolfe’s subversive The Colored Museum, Sondheim’s Into the Woods with “his most hummably enjoyable score in years,” David Henry Hwang’s complex and thought-provoking M. Butterfly with John Lithgow, and the haunting Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson.
Some shows were memorable for other reasons. The magnetic charm of Peter O’Toole in Pygmalion. Charles Busch’s rubbery face in the wonderfully wacky Psycho Beach Party. Madonna in Speed-the-Plow. Peter Brook’s Mahabharata required nine hours of sitting on BAM’s hard benches over three weeks. After the first installment, I couldn’t wait to head out to Brooklyn each week for the following two parts of this monumental work.
There were some unusual shows. Before it became an institution, Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, with its huge interactive cast and a trek from Washington Square to East 14th Street, seemed like an oh-so-cool in-joke among the cognoscenti. Tamara allowed you to follow the character(s) of your choice through its Park Avenue Armory setting; its World War I intrigue and an intermission repast from Le Cirque made “an audience feel as though it had strolled into a luxuriant Masterpiece Theatre presentation.” And in YOU—The City, cast members escorted an audience of one—you—from Times Square to a playground in Clinton with stops along the way in St. Luke’s Church and a porn theater as they held forth with existential monologues about a search for a mysteriously disappeared WHO.
In August 1987, we did a cover story on up-and-coming theater artists. Charles Busch, post-Vampire Lesbians of Sodom but pre-Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, was one. Park Overall was another; she was clearly too talented for off-off-Broadway and soon made the leap to the big screen (Biloxi Blues, Mississippi Burning) along with an extended run on the little (Empty Nest). Readers of the Spirit could say they saw her here first.
Probably the most satisfying moment of my time at the Spirit, however, was when I was informed that my positive review of the Westside Repertory Theatre’s production of She Stoops to Conquer led to a noticeable uptick in business. It was nice to know that we could make a difference.
From my first review of the South African revue Asinamali! to my last before heading down south of the campy Chorus Girls on Mars, it was a year-and-a-half that I look back on with undiluted fondness.
Brian Maxwell, who was theater editor of West Side Spirit from 1987 to 1988, has been theater editor of Ambush Magazine, based in New Orleans, since 2002.