Tuesday morning, New York theater royalty — Philip Seymour Hoffman, Liev Schreiber, Sam Waterston, Gloria Reuben, Jay O. Sanders, Laura Benanti, Michael Cerveris, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Audra McDonald, Will Swenson, and Suzan-Lori Parks — crammed into the lobby of New York’s Public Theater, in hopes of destroying it. Lest you think that wild actors were rioting in the city streets, the destruction was simply ceremonial: The downtown institution is now in the final phase of a ten-year, $35 million renovation that will not only restore the building’s 160-year-old façade, but expand its inadequate lobby into a giant public gathering space for anyone who loves theater.
Hoffman, sweating profusely in a parka and scarf he’d mistakenly thought were “spring-y,” said he didn’t know where he would be without the Public. “This is the place,” he said. “They gave me so many opportunities. I owe them a lot and I’m going to stand here and get my picture taken for as long as they need me.” In his very moving speech, Waterston, who famously played Hamlet at the Public, said he owed not just his first and best roles (as well as the “old guy” roles he’s now learning to play) to the Public, but also his marriage. “When I was trying to impress a girl, this theater let me play Benedict [from Much Ado About Nothing] when I needed it most. Eight years later, I ended up marrying that girl.”
Schreiber, who is on the board of the Public and has starred in seven plays there, actually attended East Village Community Board meetings to convince the neighborhood, in which he and Naomi Watts also live, that the project would be worth enduring so much noisy construction. “This is our legacy. To be a part of it is very exciting,” he said. “I want my kids to see that these are the buildings that we cherish. That’s the great thing about edifices. They’re a social reminder that we were the people who valued such things as theater, and I can’t think of anything I value more than the Public Theater.” Still, he was excited about the chance to ceremoniously take a hammer to the wall that was being knocked down. “I’ve never cared for this wall, personally. It’s not my favorite wall in the building,” he said. “I’ll miss a lot of things about the lobby, but not that wall.” (He had to leave before the smashing of things began.)
Beyond love of the Public, though, there were other reasons to get excited about the renovations. The size of the lobby will be increased 175 percent, and will include a glass mezzanine with a bar and a library. The names of plays performed at the theater currently painted on the ceiling are going to be replaced by a hanging digital sculpture by Ben Rubin that will scroll continuously through the text of Shakespeare’s plays. Parks thought the sculpture seemed cool but was sad that the names of her plays — Fucking A, Topdog /Underdog — would now be gone from the building. “I’m mad,” she said. “I urinated all along the wall to mark my territory for when they knock it down.”
Speaking of urination, the renovation’s biggest selling point seems to be that the theater will finally have bathrooms decent enough that its audiences won’t have to engage in extreme bladder control just to avoid using them. “I’ve actually had people tell me they won’t come to the Public because the restrooms are so bad,” said Andrew Hamingson, the Public’s executive director. Concurred artistic director Oskar Eustis, “I know a lot of people who plan their night around not going to the bathroom at the Public Theater.” Since the theater will remain open throughout construction, audiences there and at Joe’s Pub will be treated to luxury Porta Potti trailers in the interim. Will they be an improvement from the current restrooms? “You’re setting the bar very low,” said Eustis. “I can only hope so.”