From Basement to Broadway ; N.Y.'S Roundabout Gets a Controversial Multimillion-Dollar Makeover

Article excerpt

When actor Nathan Lane rolled onto the stage of the former Selwyn Theater in a wheelchair last month, he inaugurated the most recent example of the rebirth of Times Square.

It was the opening of the revival of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's American classic "The Man Who Came to Dinner" at The Roundabout Theater Company, long acclaimed as a leader in reviving classic shows, at its new home in the heart of the Broadway theater district.

The Roundabout, the nation's second-largest nonprofit theater company, behind New York's Lincoln Center Theater, originally staged its plays in the basement of a Chelsea supermarket in the 1960s. Its new $25 million home is quite a step up. The new space is embellished with restored Italian Renaissance-style murals and lavish wreath moldings.

The most controversial aspect of the new nonprofit Roundabout theater centers on its corporate sponsorship. In addition to government grants and an increase in the number of season subscribers, the budget includes underwriting from American Airlines - $8.5 million of the overall $25 million cost - in exchange for the airline's name on the theater. Roundabout also plans to sustain its new home in part through season subscribers: The total has jumped from 17,000 in 1983 to the current 46,000.

Other companies have also joined in, including Nabisco, which gave $500,000 to have the theater's lounge named after it.

But some nonprofit officials have suggested that the Roundabout company has sold out. Todd Haimes, artistic director of Roundabout, defends the decision: "As long as the corporate sponsors are not interested in affecting our artistic decisions, I'm happy to have their participation."

Those artistic decisions so far have yielded 13 Tony Awards, stretching back to the 1985 Best Actress prize for Stockard Channing's performance in "Joe Egg"; Best Play for "Side Man"; best revival wins for "Cabaret," "A View from the Bridge," "Anna Christie," and "Joe Egg"; and several other Tony Awards for acting performances.

The theater has navigated some rough waters since its inception in 1965. At times, it presented plays in the Chelsea basement to audiences smaller than the number of actors on stage.

The itinerant group moved into a former movie house, weathered a bankruptcy filing, resumed operations in an auditorium at the Fashion Institute of Technology, settled for a time at the Union Square Theatre, a former union hall, and then took up residency at the Criterion Center complex in Times Square. …