THE Steinway grand piano sitting in the Culture Project's funky vestibule, once the loading dock of a lumberyard, is an incongruous sight. But no more so than anything else in the life of Allan Buchman, artistic director of the nonprofit playhouse whose rapidly rising profile has been one of the more unusual stories in New York theater of late.
"I don't play," he says, with the resigned air of a man who's been asked that question a lot. After all, for the first three decades of his 57 years, the soft-spoken, barrel-chested Manhattan native was an expert in the acquisition, restoration and resale of antique pianos.
The Steinway is the last remaining artifact of that chapter before a midlife career crisis, precipitated by a family tragedy and his own restless, maverick personality. Nonetheless, the charismatic producer has since proved a virtuoso in bringing major media attention to his 199-seat theater by fusing two elements that raise skeptics' eyebrows: politically tinged works and celebrities.
It's likely that even if Meryl Streep had not agreed to present "Sarah Jones Bridge & Tunnel," which premiered last year at the Culture Project, the critically acclaimed one-woman show still might have had a sold-out run and plans for a Broadway transfer (postponed from this season to next).
But there's no question that Anjelica Huston and Carol Kane's involvement fueled attention paid to another one-woman show: "Belfast Blues." Geraldine Hughes' coming-of-age story in the war-torn city, which had its U.S. premiere at the Black Dahlia Theatre in Los Angeles, ends its run April 24.
And two rotating casts of stars, including Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Mia Farrow, Robin Williams, Aidan Quinn and Kathleen Turner, helped the visibility and box office of two other Culture Project productions, 2002's "The Exonerated," about unlawfully accused death-row inmates, and 2004's "Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom," about questionable detentions of terrorist suspects by the U.S. "Exonerated" was made into a film starring Quinn, Sarandon, Brian Dennehy and Danny Glover that aired on Court TV this year.
"Everybody looks with disdain if it's not them who has the celebrities," says Buchman. "[They say] it's the most disgraceful form of prostitution. But what gets lost in the translation is that these celebrities are extraordinary people who are genuinely enthusiastic about the work they are presenting and eager to garner attention for it, not for themselves. If they were demanding, self-aggrandizing divas, it would be a far less attractive proposition."
According to Buchman, Streep was so impressed with a workshop production of "Bridge & Tunnel" that she offered to put her name above the title and to promote the show with Jones. Kane saw "Belfast Blues" at the Black Dahlia and returned with her friend Huston, who immediately volunteered her name. "It was totally on instinct," Huston says by phone. "I'm not apt to lend my name loosely, but I thought 'Belfast Blues' was important socially and personally and had a lot of integrity and merit."
Huston said she was aware that Streep had endorsed "Bridge & Tunnel" and that, at another off-Broadway theater, Anne Bancroft had presented Ann Randolph in her one-woman show "Squeeze Box," about her years as a social worker. But, she says, she was not responding to some sort of trend. "It's not about setting a precedent, it's about putting your name to something you believe in," she says, noting that she has worked with Amnesty International for years just as her father, John Huston, had before her.
She also dismissed cynics who suggest that tying themselves to a political cause is a way for celebrities to acquire a gravitas missing from their red-carpet lives. "I have always been concerned with people in plight, those who are trapped by history who don't have a choice in their situations," she says. "Geraldine's play puts a human face on that."
Buchman says that humanizing the underclass in this country -- whether it be death-row prisoners, detainees or the myriad misfits created in "Bridge & Tunnel" -- seems the only appropriate memorial to his daughter, Jhardene, who died in 1993 in her mid-20s after abusing drugs and alcohol. At the same time, Buchman closed his piano business.
He'd long admired Joseph Papp, founder of the Public Theater, and actor-producer John Houseman, who teamed with Orson Welles in the 1930s to form the Mercury Theatre, which produced political works, including Marc Blitzstein's "The Cradle Will Rock."
"They were as underqualified as I was, but they both responded to the landscape of their times with enormous courage and principle," he says.
Indeed, by presenting such "ripped from the headlines" plays as "Exonerated" and "Guantanamo," the Culture Project recalls the heady days of the Mercury, the Group Theatre and the Public.
"Allan's very laid-back and not as imposing as Joe was. But they both get things done in a very energetic and passionate way," says Kane, who worked with Papp. "With Allan, it's not a business. It's about gut instinct, creative energy and good taste. That's why people are eager to work here."
Stirring the pot
Sarah JONES, whose earlier work was nurtured at the funky Nuyorican Poets Cafe, says the Culture Project has the same raw, bohemian ambience. "If you accidentally kick over a can of paint, it becomes part of the set," she jokes. "And it's great for people who need a lot of freedom like myself. What I got from Allan was a pledge not to interfere, and I can't tell you he was totally able to do that, but more so than anybody else."
Buchman says he's eager to add to the political discourse, but he concedes that he could be preaching to the converted.
The antidote, says Buchman, is to concentrate on the wit and humanity of the issues. And if presented well, the play will not only generate thought but, he hopes, controversy.
After the film of "The Exonerated" was released, prosecutors involved in some of the original cases attacked the work, arguing that it exculpated some of the defendants when their release from death row came not from evidence but on the basis of legal technicalities. Buchman counters that they are shaping facts to support their contentions.
But far from being on the defensive, he is delighted with the controversy. "I'm just glad that there is this debate going on," he says. "I think the only thing theater can do is prime an audience to reevaluate their old thoughts, and perhaps by doing so, entertain new ones. It's dangerous. You have to inspire without really coveting the result. You just have to have faith in human nature that given the opportunity to see all sides, people will arrive at a conclusion that will be progressive."
Even more dangerous is that topical theater often has a short shelf life. Clifford Odets' plays, like "Waiting for Lefty," were smash hits in the 1930s but are rarely performed today. And during the run of "Guantanamo" from last August to December, a Supreme Court decision upholding the detainees' constitutional rights would have rendered the drama moot. As it was, Moazzam Begg -- a British citizen held at Guantanamo for three years without legal representation who is represented in the play as a victim of overzealous U.S. prosecution -- was released early this year.
"It's a terrible position to be in: that what is good for the planet could be bad for us," Buchman muses. "And what is good for us is bad for the planet."
The reelection of George W. Bush simply reinforces what Buchman calls "a collegial sense" among the progressive community "to amplify the voices of disagreement or even defiance." He is developing a number of projects, including plays about abortion and homelessness, that he hopes will speak for the disenfranchised in a way "people from either blue or red states can appreciate."
"I think you'll find in any work on abortion we do a great deal of information from people on both sides of the issue," he says. "And if we can't take people on a journey that is unexpected, illuminating and surprising when it comes to homelessness, then we're just not doing our job right."