Friday, September 8, 2017

Beyond Desire and a Theater of His Own

Beyond Desire cast. Source: Theatre Arts Monthly/scan from my collection.

Beyond Desire opened at Theatre Four in New York City on October 10, 1967. Unfortunately, the play was not a hit and closed just five days later on October 15th. The play, written by Constance Loux and based on Pierre La Mure's novel, was produced and directed by Franchot's friend and frequent collaborator Jean Dalrymple. The cast included Franchot Tone, Betsy von Furstenberg, Richard Sterne, Jay Barney, Mary Bell, Norman Budd, Jo Flores Chase, Richard Kuss, Andrew Plamondon, Jane Marla Robbins, John Scanlan, Ethel Smith, Ben Yaffee, and Jay Velie.

Seemingly plagued with issues from the start, Beyond Desire's opening date had been postponed and it ran for only seven previews and eight performances before closing. The New York Times reported that Franchot would be both narrating and performing a separate role in the play, but from all accounts, it appears that Franchot, with star billing, only performed as the play's on-stage narrator. (I wonder if this was just the part as intended, if Franchot wanted to lend his name to this production, or if his sitting to the side as narrator had something to do with his cancer diagnosis.)

The play was based on the life of composer Felix Mendelssohn. Dan Sullivan, for the New York Times, reviewed the play this way:
"Beyond Desire" might well be titled "Beyond Recognition."...romantic slush, and worse than that, stale romantic slush...the play is a collection of Lines You Thought You'd Heard the Last Of, lines you thought they'd never dare use again.
Regarding Franchot, Sullivan remarked:
Franchot Tone has star billing, but only sits to one side of the stage, trying to tie together the 50 or so scenes with some kind of coherent narration.

The negative reviews and swift run of the play surely were a disappointment to Franchot and director Jean Dalrymple, since Beyond Desire was the first play they chose to produce at Theatre Four. You see Theatre Four had just recently been acquired by Ms. Dalrymple and Franchot, longtime friends and colleagues.

Just two months prior to Beyond Desire's opening, Jean and Franchot partnered to purchase the theater for a price between $200,000-500,000 (that's a minimum of 1 million plus today.) Theatre Four had first been a church, before David Ross transformed the property to include a theater in the 60's. Jean and Franchot planned to produce plays and musicals in their new theater.

Owning a theater had been a lifelong dream for Franchot and this must have been a happy career milestone for him. Dolores Dorn, Franchot's costar in Uncle Vanya and fourth wife, talked about this aspiration in her memoir (my original post on that is here.) On their very first date at a French restaurant in 1956, Franchot confided in Dolores that his dream was to eventually own his own theater. Franchot told her that his vision for his theater was to be a home for plays with real issues and that he was influenced by his time with the original Group Theatre in the early 30's.

Sadly, Franchot would die of lung cancer just a little over a year after acquiring the theater. I have not been able to track down what became of the theater immediately following his death, but I'll assume that it remained in Jean Dalrymple's possession for the time being. At some point, it became known as the Julia Miles Theatre and known as the home to the Women's Project and Productions. Citidex describes the theater as a "small space with under 200 seats is located just north of Manhattan's Theatre District."

Another blow discovered in my search: It looks like Franchot's theater at 424 West 55th has since been demolished to make room for an affordable housing building.  In a 2014 article for Curbed New York, Zoe Rosenberg reported that the lot was formerly the site of a "three-story church with a 3,000 square foot theater" which sold for over 8 million in 2013.

Although the first play "Beyond Desire" wasn't well-received, I can only imagine what might have been had Franchot not passed away at the age of 63 just a year later. I can picture a future Franchot, in his late 60's through his 80's even, stepping into the role of respected director and producer of hard-hitting plays presented in the theater he co-owned with Dalrymple. I envision an aged Tone mentoring young actors and possibly teaching his own acting classes there.

I've been reading Dalrymple's memoirs which are focused solely on her work with City Center and, because of this focus, do not mention Theatre Four. However, there are some nice passages about Franchot at City Center that I'll share soon.

Sources: "'Beyond Desire Closes.'"The New York Times. October 16, 1967. pg. 56.
"Franchot Tone in Dual Role." The New York Times. August 29, 1967. pg. 26.
"Jean Dalrymple Buys a Theater: Franchot Tone is Partner in Off-Broadway Venture." The New York Times. August 3, 1967.
Lortel Archives:
Sullivan, Dan. "Theater: Mendelssohn in a Flat Key." The New York Times. October 11, 1967. pg. 36.
Lasson, Robert and David Eynon. "The Poll's the Thing." The New York Times. October 8, 1967. pg. X1.
Rosenberg, Zoe. "Small Structure to Replace Church on West 55th Street." Curbed New York.
"Theatre Four."
"Two Plays Set New Dates." The New York Times. September 25, 1967. pg. 55.

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