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Fifteen minutes after the standing ovation for the Labyrinth Theater's latest play, Jack Goes Boating, cast and company arrive at the trendy BBar, around the corner from New York's Public Theater, to celebrate their opening night.
Labyrinth's co-artistic director, Philip Seymour Hoffman — who won an Oscar for the lead role in Capote, and who's playing the title character in Jack — says stage work helps keep him sharp.
"I like doing films very much," Hoffman says. "But why I got into acting was for the theater. ... It really is a humbling experience. And it's an exciting experience, and a challenging experience in a way that film can't give you. And it's important to have it, if I want to try to be the best actor I can be."
His colleagues clearly feel the same. The Labyrinth Theater Company was founded 15 years ago as the LAB Theater; the acronym stood for Latino Actors Base, but it quickly evolved into a multicultural ensemble. In its early days, the company was basically an actors' workshop in a semi-abandoned Hell's Kitchen theater, according to Daphne Rubin-Vega. The actress, who played the original Mimi in the musical Rent, joined Labyrinth at its inception in 1992.
"And the LAB ... was up on 52nd Street and 10th Avenue, in that now-famous rat-infested place," she remembers. "And we'd go there, like, when it was late and dangerous because ... we really wanted to be there. We wanted to go up there ... so that we could play acting games, and be free to be foolish. And experiment."
Now Rubin-Vega is one of the four members of the Jack Goes Boating cast. She plays the wife of Jack's best friend, who is portrayed by Labyrinth founder and co-director John Ortiz.
Jack playwright Bob Glaudini has been with the company for two years. Stephen Adly Guirgis, though, has been there since the beginning. He joined as an actor, but Ortiz asked him to start writing for the company. Since then, Guirgis' plays — In Arabia We'd All Be Kings, Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, and Our Lady of 121st Street — have won critical acclaim and helped put Labyrinth on the map.
All of them were directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, whom Guirgis initially drafted for Arabia.
"He said, "I never directed before,'" Guirgis recalls. "And I said, 'Yeah, but a couple of years ago, I never wrote before.' And that's how it started. ... I felt that whatever I wrote, he could understand it emotionally and intellectually."
But then multitasking is part of the Labyrinth ethic. The company encourages its members to learn different theater skills, and it uses its own people for every phase of a production. All members have a say in the work they do. Everyone works other jobs to make a living.
They come to Labyrinth, Hoffman says, to grow as artists.
"It's very important to us that we keep this a company of artists, and not a producing organization so much," he says. "The play tonight is a play written by a company member for the company. And we try to keep that as a goal. ... At the end of the day, we'll have a body of work that is Labyrinth work."
The signature of that body of work is a focus on unsung characters, says New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley.
"They tend to specialize in people who would be called blue-collar workers," Brantley says. "Labyrinth often deals with ... not 'desperate' lives, but less comfortable lives, and people trying to find a center in them. And I think there's a hunger for that kind of careful examination of life that wouldn't be observed otherwise."
That includes lives of color, says John Patrick Shanley. The playwright, who won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for his Broadway hit Doubt, heard about Labyrinth 10 years ago and asked how he could join. "Write a play," he was told. Since then, he's written three for the company.
"It was a good match," Shanley says. "They were a very urban group that reflected the multiplicity of ethnicity in New York. And I wanted that — to work with people like that. Sometimes there's a danger with theater that it just gets too white."
Like its multicultural membership, Labyrinth's plays often focus on themes of community. Jack Goes Boating centers on a group of dysfunctional friends who still manage to offer each other support.
"You know, we grow up together, we fight," Guirgis says. "We have sex. We break up. We stay together. And then we make work."
Guirgis says that with Labyrinth — as with forerunners like the Group Theater of the 1930s and the Moscow Art Theater before that — good art comes out of a good support group.
"I would say that the blessing of my life is finding this family," Guirgis says. "And it really is a family. It sounds kind of corny, but it's true."
And it's a blessing, he says.
"Because what we didn't realize, until we started getting into it — it's not like this everywhere."