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‘The Price’ Of Reviving A Historic Stage

The shuttered Coconut Grove Playhouse
The Coconut Grove Playhouse in 2015. Photo by Phillip Pessar.

While attending a conference in Miami Beach in January 2001, I took my Aunt Claire to see Jack Klugman star in Arthur Miller’s drama “The Price” at the venerable Coconut Grove Playhouse.

Klugman – his voice raspy from cancer surgery – was powerful and serious as Mr. Solomon, the street-smart but sly secondhand-furniture dealer who helps Victor Franz (played in that production by Dan Lauria of TV’s “The Wonder Years”) confront past disappointments amid the cobwebbed furniture in his late father’s home. It was the first time I saw “The Price,” which debuted on Broadway when I was a kid in the Bronx and had already been revived on several occasions by the time I saw it in Florida. The play reminded me of Miller’s masterpiece “Death of a Salesman,” though it was first performed almost two decades later.

That evening with Aunt Claire became a treasured memory. She was my mother’s sister – older by 13 years – and her financial help made it possible for me to attend college in far-off Montana. She moved to Florida while I was at school, but we remained close in the years that followed. I called her regularly, and she ended every phone call with the same question: “Is there anything you need or want?” After college there never was anything I needed or wanted, other than to stay in touch.

This production of “The Price” was the only show I ever saw at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. Built in the vaudeville era, with a grand auditorium that held more than 1,100 spectators, it was coming off arguably its finest couple of decades from an artistic standpoint when I visited. But although we in the audience did not know it that night, the economics of live theater were grinding down the venue just as steadily as the salty air of the tropical Atlantic. The theater closed in 2006, swamped in debt and in need of extensive repairs. Repairs may not have been enough, even if they had been possible; by some accounts, much of the structure’s reinforcing steel was simply gone.

Aunt Claire’s health also faltered in the years that followed. She died in 2004.

“The Price” has recently been revived again in New York. In April, my wife and I saw it on Broadway, with Danny DeVito playing Mr. Solomon and Mark Ruffalo as Victor Franz. As you might expect, DeVito played the old furniture dealer with more of a comedic flair than Klugman. In the old days, the folks in Miami might even have described him as a mensch. (The performance has earned DeVito a Tony Award nomination.) In keeping with DeVito’s performance, Ruffalo’s portrayal of Victor was more earnest and less angry than I remember Lauria’s being. If you want to catch this production, you’d best hurry; the show will close after the May 14th matinee.

The latest Broadway revival of Miller’s play is not the only reason I have been thinking lately of my evening excursion with Aunt Claire. South Florida is now my primary home, and efforts to revive the long-dark Coconut Grove Playhouse have sparked a lively controversy here.

In 2014, Miami-Dade County took control of the shuttered theater from the state, which had been approaching a deadline to put the Playhouse up for sale. Florida International University and GableStage, a local theatrical company, were to take charge of the property. By that point, the building’s exterior was a designated landmark and had to be preserved, but consultants warned that a 1,100-seat venue would not prove economically viable.

Thus began the controversy over how to handle the space behind the Playhouse’s facade. The initial plan, approved by the state, called for a new, state-of-the-art theater at a much smaller scale: 300 seats, about half the size of the smallest space on Broadway. Mike Eidson, a major force in the Miami arts scene, came forward with a plan to add a second performance space. The 750-seat auditorium would host larger shows with bigger stars, the theory went, perhaps starting with Kevin Spacey, who Eidson said supported the idea.

Critics of Eidson’s vision expressed skepticism over the plan’s economics. It would take millions of dollars not only to build, but to run the second, larger space. Joe Adler, GableStage’s artistic director, warned that relying on out-of-town stars was not a sustainable business model and suggested that a more intimate space can sometimes be an asset for regional theaters.

After years of wrangling, last month Miami’s historic preservation board “in theory” approved the plan to remodel the Coconut Grove Playhouse’s interior. The plan before the board included the 300-seat theater as part of an overhaul of the property that would also include shops, restaurants, a new parking facility and residential units. The board granted conditional support, though it said it will need to review more detailed plans once they are available before the construction project can move forward. (While Eidson has continued to push to include his larger space, the current plan does not.)

The board’s vote in April triggered voices arguing for neither the 300-seat option nor the additional 750-seat space, but to preserve the entire original auditorium. Two local residents filed a notice of appeal to the board’s decision, arguing that the Playhouse’s interior as well as the exterior held historic significance. The appeal is set for June 22.

Whatever happens next, the external shell of the old theater, at least, will likely survive. But whether the Coconut Grove Playhouse will ever again host a major production featuring nationally known stars remains an open question. I’m not sure if it should.

The economics of mounting a Broadway-caliber show for a fixed period have only gotten worse in the years since my outing with Aunt Claire. On Broadway itself, some top-tier tickets sell at the box office for $250 or more. A few years ago, the average price of a Broadway ticket topped $100 for the first time. “Hamilton,” always the exception, increased the price of its premium seats to over $800 in an attempt to foil scalpers, breaking the previous record of $477 set by “The Book of Mormon.” For a major hit like “Hamilton,” even at that price you may wait a long time to secure seats.

While dramas like “The Price” are not as expensive to run as musical spectaculars like “Hamilton” (or “Wicked” or “The Lion King”), famous actors and space on the Great White Way still do not come cheap. A premium seat to the “The Price” runs audience members $179, assuming they can secure one at all given the show’s limited run. That sort of pricing is unsustainable in Miami, or in most other places, which is why there are touring companies that put on a slightly scaled-down version of a show for a couple of nights, or even a couple of weeks, in a given town.

While the Playhouse was easily the best theater venue in Miami in 2001, today it would be overshadowed by the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. (Eidson was the Arsht Center’s chair when he first put forward a plan for the Playhouse, though he was acting independently; he has since stepped down.) Standing just down the street from the American Airlines Arena in Miami’s much-more-developed downtown, it is the subtropical answer to Lincoln Center. A revived Coconut Grove Playhouse would be destined to serve as no more than a regional theater and a secondary venue in what is now a city with a big arts scene.

It seems likely that I’ll be able to return to the Playhouse sometime in the future to see some sort of production, even if it is not one that features famous actors performing a work by a renowned playwright. That will be fine, in its own way. We can keep our relics from the past or we can dispose of them, but as Mr. Solomon might observe, sometimes the price of holding on to our illusions is more than we are prepared to pay.

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