Unbroken "Line": 22 Years at 13th Street Repertory Company

In theatre, as in geometry, some lines are longer than others. "A Chorus Line" was a show for all seasons on Broadway. And a play simply titled "Line, " by Israel Horovitz, has recently begun the 22nd consecutive year of its run at the 13th Street Repertory Company.

First, some caveats. At full capacity, the theatre at 50 W. 13th St. seats no more than 75 people, and "Line" has played only two to four times a week throughout its run there. Still, the production has thus far amassed a total of nearly 3,300 performances--impressive by any standard.

And Horovitz's "Line" has extended far beyond 13th Street. The play has been translated into 35 languages for performances around the world. "It's probably playing tonight in 20 languages," says the author. No less a personage than Eugene Ionesco wrote an introduction for the program of the Paris production, which ran for 11 years.

"I'm invited to China next year, to see 'Line' there," Horovitz says. "I've seen the play in Slovenia. I suppose all of this is a tribute to the fact that it's so cheap to do."

Glory Days

Actors in "Line" at 13th Street Rep receive no pay for their work, but that hasn't dimmed their loyalty to the play or the company. Robert Coffin was in the show steadily for three memorable years, 1979-81, and has returned for special events such as anniversaries. " 'Line' was the theatre's mainstay in those days," he says. "We would usually fill the house on Saturday nights."

Coffin likes the simplicity of Horovitz's one-act. "The play is about a group of people waiting on line for something," he says.

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"It's never specified exactly what. One guy thinks the line is for a movie, another thinks it's for a ballgame."

In sum, "Line" is an existential comedy about the competitive aspect of human nature. "The line represents being first," says Coffin. "Every character wants to be first--even though they don't know what the line is for. They all use different methods to get to the head of the line: One guy uses cunning, one uses brute force, the woman uses sex."

Coffin played three different characters at separate times during his run in the show. "It was true ensemble acting," he says. "When the show is going well, it runs just about an hour. It's up to the actors to keep it moving."

Beginning of the Line

"Line" first came to life at Cafe La MaMa in 1967, co-directed by Horovitz and James Hammerstein, with a cast including John Cazale and Ann Wedgeworth. Preparations were going smoothly until, in Horovitz's words, "the young actor who was playing Stephen announced, after the dress rehearsal, that he'd gotten a role in a TV series pilot and was going from the theatre to the airport, where he would fly away, forever. He did, all of the above." The terrified playwright himself took over the part, rehearsed all night and the following day (Nov. 22), and went on that evening.

After La MaMa, and prior to its 13th Street Rep incarnation, "Line" was seen Off-Broadway in 1971 at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel), with Richard Dreyfuss (as Stephen), Barnard Hughes, and John Randolph joining Cazale and Wedgeworth in the cast. That production was well received, and ran for about a year. But "Line" might thereafter have remained a minor footnote in New York theatre history were it not for its marathon run at 13th Street Rep.

Coffin relates that actors Steve Prutting and Anthony Dennison, who had done a short tour of Horovitz's "The Indian Wants the Bronx" in the late '70s, in Poughkeepsie, brought that play to Edith O'Hara, artistic director of 13th Street Rep. Things worked out so well with "Indian" that O'Hara asked Prutting, Dennison, and their friends to get involved in "Line," which had already been running at the theatre since 1975.

"A lot of us had worked together in Poughkeepsie," Coffin recalls. "We came down more or less as a group around the end of 1978, and we filtered into 13th Street. Theatre was the only thing we could think of doing, and we all found a home there. It was a difficult and wonderful time for a lot of people. We were filled with the spirit of being actors and working in New York."

Cast of Hundreds

"I lived at the theatre," Prutting says of his "Line" experience. "I was involved in the show for almost 10 years of my life, from 1977 to 1986, as an actor and director." Prutting is now doing public relations work in L.A., "taking a break" from acting.

"We had some wonderful people come through the cast," he says, "from Chazz Palminteri to Vince Irizarry. 13th Street Rep is a non-union house, so some of the casts have been a funny mix. But sometimes they get a group of people who really click for a few months."

Playwright Horovitz credits Prutting with much of the success of "Line" at 13th Street Rep. Horovitz--who lives nearby the theatre, on 11th Street--remembers that he originally suggested the minimalist, five-character play to Edith O'Hara as an ideal project for her earnest but small-scale operation.

" 'Line' is a nice sort of athletic event on stage," says the author. "It's entertaining, it's funny. And it makes clear the absurdity of having to be number one--which is a nice translation of the American dream, I suppose. I wrote it as a very young man, struggling with the contradiction between the problems of art and conventional success. That theme is quite manifest in the play." Horovitz noted that the character names in "Line"--Stephen, Molly, Arnall, Dolan, and Fleming--are all taken from James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."

The playwright is unstinting in his praise of 13th Street Rep. "The most important thing about the company is that it's a lovely little training ground for actors new to the city," he says. "I don't know how many hundreds of people have worked there over the years but, by and large, most of them have been newcomers trying to figure out how to make a place for themselves in New York theatre. I think of 'Line' as something I've been able to contribute to that."

Nowadays

"Line" may strike some modern-day audiences as a quaint artifact of the late '60s. But, apparently, the play is viewed as manna from heaven by young (and not so young) performers hoping to hone their acting chops.

"It's a challenging play for everyone involved," says current cast member Michael Guzzo. "You're not given a lot of information about who your character is, so it's very much open to interpretation. My character of Dolan, for example, is usually played as an over-the-top tough guy. I wanted to give him a bit more dimension, a bit more weakness."

Jonas Abney, who plays Stephen, also sees his involvement in "Line" as a sort of acting class. "Unlike most plays, which are about relationships between people," Abney says, "this one is written so there's no real bonding or give-and-take among the characters. Everything is geared toward being first in line; you have to focus in on that one, constant objective, and there's nothing to distract you."

That kind of exercise has been invaluable to the many actors who've found a place in "Line" at 13th Street Rep over the years. Says Guzzo, "One of the things that's wonderful about the company is that you're given the opportunity to act in something for several months or more. Before this, I was never in a show that ran more than two or three weeks. The theatre has problems, like any other small theatre; but it's been around for decades, providing a place where people can practice their craft over a long period of time. I think that's a tribute to Edith O'Hara, and what she's accom