Second Chance for Star-Studded Theater

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In its heyday, the Jan Hus Theater, tucked in the basement of Jan Hus Presbyterian Church, has been the artistic home to the Light Opera of Manhattan and Chicago City Limits, featuring top-tier entertainers like Barbra Streisand, Robin Williams and Jerry Seinfeld. About four years ago, though, Chicago City Limits left for a new venue and the space fell somewhat fallow.

Without a performing group to take root, the church used its basement for occasional fundraisers, and began a lunch club for seniors, now run by the Carter Burden Center. The lighting used for performances was taken down to do repairs and never replaced.

Carl Stillitano, whose one-act play, Kenny and the Virgin Mary, was the first production in the newly revamped space. Photos by Andrew Schwartz

But Rev. Ray Bagnuolo saw potential when he became pastor at the East 74th Street church last August.

“It just seemed like it was really a good time to take a look and see what could happen, he said.

Inspiration came thanks to a good friend Bagnuolo met at the church, Jerry Brody, who ran an acting workshop with Carl Stillitano. The reverend attended one weekend and found the experience both emotionally and spiritually invigorating. He also recognized a rare quality in Stillitano: the ability to create a place where people could take the risk in expressing themselves. Hoping to recreate that atmosphere in the church, Bagnuolo offered Stillitano and his professional partner, Lenise Soren, of Sorenity Productions, the basement theater as their artistic home. It was good timing, as the duo was looking for a venue for Stillitano"s one-act play, Kenny and the Virgin Mary.

If the legacy of the Jan Hus Theater is flecked with stardust, the watchword of its re-opening is community. Its creators aim to support New York"s artists and make theater affordable for neighbors. With tickets for a Broadway musical presently going for upwards of $100, the Jan Hus Theater is an attractive alternative, with all tickets priced at $25.

Kenny and the Virgin Mary, directed by Brody and co-starring Stillitano and Bridget Trama, is the inaugural production of the refurbished theater. It opened to a sell-out audience March 11 and continued to pull in sizable crowds in subsequent weeks. Some audience members have returned several times, bringing a husband, relative or friend in tow. The drama is a life-affirming story of first love and second chances, and was selected by the group for its infectious charm, as well as more practical aspects in staging; the show has only one set, and its scenic accoutrements are minimal.

In keeping with its community-minded mission, one of the show"s producers, Noah Katz, has dedicated 100 percent of the proceeds for the first five weeks to the American Cancer Society. The theater pulled in more than $15,000 from ticket sales and donations, with an anonymous check for $5,000 arriving the first week. Proceeds from other nights will be donated to struggling families in
the community.

The reverend hopes that the theater will draw attention to other vital projects at the church, which has earned a reputation for dynamic social outreach and progressive thinking since Bagnuolo"s arrival. Anyone is welcome to his congregation, including lesbians, gays, transsexuals and marginalized and disenfranchised persons. And the new theater, as the reverend sees it, is just one more force unifying these groups.

“Every single community in this building benefits from having a stage operative and functioning, Bagnuolo said. “It provides everybody in the building to come together in a different way. 

Kenny and the Virgin Mary, open run Wednesdays through Saturdays, Jan Hus Theater in the basement of Jan Hus Presbyterian Church, 351 E. 74th St. (betw. First and Second avenues), 212-352-3101; 8 p.m., $25.