September 25, 2022

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Broadway Set Designers on Their Appealing Sets

9 min read

It was opening night of “Plaza Suite,” and the set’s bathroom door was meant to stay shut — a stubborn comic obstacle to Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, playing parents of a bride who has locked herself inside on her wedding day.

Reinforced within an inch of its life, the door had held all through previews. On that March evening, though, the frame around it gave way, derailing the plot and amusing the crowd.

“Opening night!” the set’s mortified designer, John Lee Beatty, said later. “I wish the audience hadn’t enjoyed it that much.”

Of course spectators would have. One of the principal pleasures of in-person theatergoing is the ever-present awareness that the performance might somehow go awry. And in the Broadway season that followed such a long, grim pandemic intermission, simply encountering a gorgeous set, even one that’s being temperamental, could be its own source of delight.

Over at “The Skin of Our Teeth,” the millennium-hopping Thornton Wilder play that begins in the Ice Age, breaking the door down is deliberate: It’s the only way for a family with a pet dinosaur and a pet mammoth to let the enormous puppet creatures in and out of their house.

The next act takes place in Great Flood-era Atlantic City, where actors go down a giant amusement park slide. The set designer, Adam Rigg, gets futile entreaties daily from audience members eager to ride it, too. You don’t get much farther from digital performance than that kind of kineticism.

“The one real gift we have in theater is the tangible aspect of it,” said Rigg, a Broadway newcomer. “If I can get people to lean forward a little bit until they try to project themselves onto the stage, that’s pretty incredible, you know?”

Of all the stellar sets this season, we picked five currently onstage that made us relish being in the room with them — the kinds of designs that would lose something essential if you tried to put them on camera. With a photographer undertaking the paradoxical task of capturing that live energy, we chatted with each designer: Christine Jones and Beatty, both two-time Tony Award winners; and Anna Fleischle, Scott Pask (a three-time winner) and Rigg, all current nominees.

These are edited excerpts from those conversations.

American Airlines Theater

With its dreamy arc of objects overhead, a kitchen is the stage for 90 years in the life of an ordinary woman named Ernestine, played by Debra Messing in Noah Haidle’s philosophical comedy.

Christine Jones: Some of the items [suspended above the kitchen] are things that are specifically referenced, like the blue ribbon from Ernestine’s hair. There are kitchen elements, as if somebody released the gravity button and the things from the kitchen rose up into the air. And then there’s the ephemera of postcards or love letters or musical instruments. There’s a teddy bear. Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” is up there. Ticket stubs. It’s the things that you accumulate over a lifetime.

I wanted the set to evoke the ephemeral, celestial, existential spirit of our time on Earth and our time within different spaces. I was so moved by Noah’s writing. He talks about the ingredients of the birthday cake, and [Ernestine] says that it’s made out of atoms and stardust. I feel like that’s what our memories are like. When we think about the different moments in our lives, it is these objects and the ephemera that are both witness to and ghosts of what takes place. I had a clear image of this environment that had been infused with light and space and time and eternity — from the moment I read the script.

We talk about the aural acoustics of a space, but I think that there are visual acoustics as well. What are the ways that I can shape space to create a sense of intimacy and connection? No matter what the piece of theater is, I’m always interested in that reciprocal energy loop between the audience and the performers.

Hudson Theater

Suite 719 at the Plaza Hotel, in late 1960s Manhattan, is the backdrop to the farcical goings-on in three short plays by Neil Simon, now starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, who at one point ventures out onto a window ledge. During the shutdown, the set sat dormant on the Hudson Theater stage, where someone evidently tried out its sleeping quarters.

John Lee Beatty: What was I going for? Something yummy. Like you want to be in the suite with them. When I was offered the show, I happened to be watching “North by Northwest,” which of course has a scene in a suite in the Plaza, and duh: A bell went off. I also had once won a raffle ticket at one of these galas for a weekend at the Plaza. It was when the Plaza was running down, but I got a good sense of its size.

The suite is pretty accurate. It’s a little smaller and a little more delicate, just because Sarah is a little smaller and a little more delicate. It’s funny because people think I’m a documentarian, but I’m not. I eliminate a lot of details that would disturb people. Like plastic wastebaskets. In fact, I invented an official “Plaza Suite” wastebasket with its own logo, and I invented a fire screen with a “Plaza Suite” embossed logo.

There’s only one big cheat. I added an extra window. I thought, Matthew Broderick’s going to come up with something. And sure enough, they came up with Matthew battling the pigeons. It’s a really good laugh in the show.

Nobody would want to see a real-size bed onstage. They look huge. But somebody slept in the bed while we were closed for two years. We came in and the bed was mussed. Well, I don’t blame them. I mean, it’s kind of a Midtown hotel room. I don’t know what they thought about the sloping floor, but I hope they weren’t drunk.

John Golden Theater

There’s a lot of sleight of hand to Martin McDonagh’s bleak-humored play about an executioner who, after one last hanging, goes off to run a pub. The set, too, is something of a trickster, shifting in ways the audience doesn’t see coming, from a prison to the pub to a cafe on a rainy day.

Anna Fleischle: To watch a play where someone is executed within the first five minutes is so shocking. What we’ve seen is what our protagonist has been doing to earn his living. I wanted to find a metaphorical journey — how you take an audience from that shock, and you give space to really let that settle in. And in that space, the whole history of this person’s life lifts up into the air and basically is hanging above his head for the rest of the story. Everything afterward is in the shadow of it.

It’s a really dark story. At the same time, [McDonagh] manages to keep introducing humor. The opening of the cafe [set] has a little bit of that, a kind of spark in the eye about it. But the scene in itself is so heightened; to me it always felt really filmic — that it would be exciting to create this little box as if it was actually like a frame in film. But you’re in the theater, and you have the rain, and you’ve got the noise, and the place is a bit — it’s got grease all over it, and it smells of old fat. You just get that one glimpse of this place.

It’s always quite an important choice: How abstract or real do you want to be? What the realism helps with is that people think they know exactly where they are. It gives a sense of comfort. And it’s then that a story like this gets you. I love doing that.

Circle in the Square

A 1970s Chicago junk shop filled with more than 4,000 props is the setting for David Mamet’s gritty comedy, starring Laurence Fishburne, Sam Rockwell and Darren Criss as hapless crooks plotting a burglary.

Scott Pask: I was thrilled when they told me the space was going to be Circle in the Square. It’s almost in the round. Since the audience goes downstairs to go into the auditorium, I wanted the characters to do that as well — creating this subterranean shop and having at eye level a streetscape beyond the shop that we do perceive. These petty criminals, I wanted them to be below grade, because it’s such a lame caper.

This is 20th-century detritus hanging from the ceiling. We can chart our childhoods up there. I mean, at least I can. These emblematic souvenirs of the World’s Fair are sitting on the cashier’s desk, and those get completely upended by Sam. These very valuable things are just completely thrown away.

To create a ceiling in there became my greatest goal. I really wanted compression and weight. There’s like a bow to it. It’s kind of under the weight of all that stuff. When you’re in those first five or six rows, you’re looking up and that ceiling feels like it’s over you.

Kathy Fabian, our props supervisor, is a genius. We hung all these pieces: vacuum cleaners, bicycles, a crazy carton full of roller skates. The more strange it was, the better. And a lot of lamps. There were places where I would put a boxing glove on top of a lamp, or there was a fishing net that went over something else, just layering it up and making sure that it all felt — it’s not a boutique. It’s really this tragic resale shop.

Vivian Beaumont Theater

Lileana Blain-Cruz’s revival of Thornton Wilder’s apocalyptic comedy fills the vastness of the Vivian Beaumont Theater with bold color and outsize scale as it follows an American family through assorted disasters of history.

Adam Rigg: Lileana and I talked a lot about maximalism and how, in every instance where we’ve come out of something like the pandemic we’re still in, we crave excess to jolt us back awake. Our intention was [for the audience] to just be like, “Oh, this is why I go to the theater — to be overwhelmed.”

We talked a lot about [the characters in this production] being a Black family and when was the time that Blackness changed in the American landscape of the home. We thought about school integration in the ’50s and a little bit into the ’60s with the Black power movement. Black wealth has existed for a very long time in our country. But when was it actually at the forefront of white culture in talking about it? And so we chose the midcentury.

There’s all these anachronistic elements in there, like ancient scrolls. All of the vases are like Western African carvings. Even the proscenium arch has Western African carvings in it. We’re kind of always playing in this timeless feel, but we wanted people to be like, “Oh, I want to live in that room, because it looks cute.”

The biggest compliment I get is when people are like, “I wanted to be in that, I wanted to live in that, I wanted to walk in that, I wanted to ride in that.” This desire to get up and get into this space is, I think, fascinating in a time when all we do is sit and stare at screens.

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