New York Daily News
July 26, 1990

Vassar Inspires Theatrical Growing Pains

by Patricia O'Haire
Daily News Staff Writer

There are a few students wandering around the Vassar campus at this time of year, but not many.  It's vacation time, and they're off doing whatever it is students do in the summer.

But that doesn't mean the college is empty.  Far from it.  Behind its ivy-covered gates is the aptly named Powerhouse Theater, a beehive of work and activity.

It's been that way for the last six summers, ever since the New York Stage and Film Company, founded by actor Mark Linn-Baker (on hiatus from his hit TV show, "Perfect Strangers"), director Max Mayer and theatrical consultant Leslie Urdang (all former Yale students), decided Vassar was the perfect place for them to spend the summer and work on plays -- try them out in front of an audience, see if their legs are strong enough to stand on.

Last year, they had their first major success: Jay Presson Allen's "Tru," with Robert Morse, had its growing pains there, ending on Broadway with a Tony in its pocket and other awards on its walls.

This year, seven plays are on the schedule.  One, "My Mother Never Said I Should," starring Patricia Wettig and directed by Ken Olin (both of TV's "thirtysomething"), is set for off-Broadway;  another, "Hearts Desire," a musical with Peter Gallagher (of "sex, lies and videotape"), is headed for Broadway.  "Local Politics," by Richard Vetere, ends the season Aug. 5.

"Signature" was playing the night I spoke to Baker.  It's by Pulitzer Prize-winner Beth Henley, and while the work puzzled some, the reception was enthusiastic.

Why not?  The actors included Linn-Baker, Carol Kane, Christine Lahti, Kurtwood Smith and O-Lan Jones; the audience was made up of people in the nearby towns, and a theater contingent: actors Diane Keaton, Katherine Grody and Josef Sommer, and Lynne Meadow of the Manhattan Theater Club.

With the play over, Linn-Baker sat down to talk.  About why he's there, for one.

He, too, is on vacation, but only from TV.  He's still working, however, so he's here trying out new plays, working with other actors and, in essence, enjoying himself.

"My partners and I were looking for a place to start a theater a few years back," he said.  "At the same time, Vassar was looking to hook up their apprentice program with a professional troupe in a summer theater.

"It was just what we wanted, too, so we got together.

"I'm always looking to work as an actor," he continued.  "And this is a place where one can focus in on just the work alone.

"We spend the fall and winter holding readings to decide which ones we'll do, then spend the spring putting them together, then put them on, one after another, over a five-week period."

In addition, Linn-Baker and Mayer lead a directing class.  "I've taught acting and I've taught Shakespeare here," Linn-Baker says.  "But my first love is acting.  My father was a founder of the Open Stage in Hartford, where we lived.  He was a director and an actor in it, so my background's in theater management, too.

"But we all like coming here.  It's pleasant, relaxing, no pressure.  A chance to work without the Broadway bit."

And if more turn out the way "Tru" did last year, all the better.