Encomiums, hosannas and tributes, plus criticisms and analyses, should be written about actor George Bartenieff even more than they already are. His sheer longevity is breathtaking, having debuted on Broadway in 1947 at age 14 never slowing down since. Pick virtually any period of his career, it seems, and one element remains the same: Bartenieff has pursued a mix of passion projects that intermingle a belief in social justice with an unflagging fidelity to craft.
To one generation, Bartenieff is a familiar character actor, with appearances in feature films (Julie & Julia) and not a few TV shows (Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock, various Law & Order franchises and Rescue Me). To another generation, he was, for nearly a quarter-century, one of the principal faces of Theater for the New City, which he co-founded with then-wife Crystal Field in 1970, ultimately acting, directing and/or producing some 900 new American plays, including seven premieres by Maria Irene Fornes as well as Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child — the latter representing the first time an Off-Broadway play captured the nation’s most prestigious theatrical honor. To yet another, overlapping generation, Bartenieff is the grand duke of the downtown cutting-edge, having acted with Andre Gregory’s Theater for the Living Arts, Judson Poet’s Theater, The Living Theater (more on that in a moment), Bread and Puppet Theater, La Mama E.T.C., Mabou Mines and the Public Theater — that is, in the good old days when the legendary Joseph Papp fully personified the vanguard. To still another generation, Bartenieff is an Off-Broadway legend; when it came time for the great director Alan Schneider to helm the return of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story and Samuel Beckett’s Krapp Last Tape to the boards, who but Bartenieff could serve as such inspirational casting? And speaking of casting, to a somewhat vanished generation, Bartenieff lucky: that 1947 Broadway debut, in a play called The Whole World Over, sported Uta Hagen, Sanford Meisner and Jo Van Fleet as the stars, with Herbert Berghof, Hagen’s husband, coming in as a replacement, and the peerless Harold Clurman as director. Bartenieff’s follow up in 1949 was in a minor Lillian Hellman play, Montserrat, but it starred a pre-fame Julie Harris. And still today Bartenieff plows on — endlessly versatile, endlessly curious, endlessly interested, endlessly undaunted, endlessly undeterred. For example, his collaboration with playwright Karen Malpede, and the founding of their Theater Three Collaborative (covered by the CFR here) is now 17 years young. And did he mention that, in connection with his TNC work, Bartenieff co-founded the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade? You can’t forget that — for he understands that the notion of street theater takes many forms, including those that he invented. One can be pretty sure that Bartenieff is rightly proud of his four Obie Awards.
And now, Bartenieff is illuminating Off-Off-Broadway yet again, in the ReGroup Theatre Company’s revival of Claire and Paul F. Sifton’s play 1931-. We’ll give you a moment to say “What?,” because we’re fairly certain that even the most tuned-in theatrically among us have all but never heard of the play. Yet it was the second play produced by the Group Theatre; it featured many of the now-iconic names who exploded the American stage with their arrival — Stella Adler, Phoebe Brand, Morris Carnovsky and Clifford Odets. This revival exists as a kind of full-circle, too, for Bartenieff, since the original mounting of 1931- also featured the aforementioned Meisner and was directed by Clurman’s chum, frenemy and contemporary, Lee Strasberg.
1931- is about a man named Adam who is fired from his job. He looks for another job but realizes that he is but one in a massive line of other men looking for jobs. Optimism turns to pessimism and pessimism turns to fright as everything in the social safety net Adam had come to depend on — health, food, dignity, hope, the girl he loves — seemingly slips away from him. Under such hard circumstances and extremes, the play posits the idea that revolution cannot be far behind.
With Occupy Wall Street still in the zeitgeist (however it may be flailing), and with a presidential election hanging over the nation like a Sword of Fiscal Damocles, ReGroup’s decision to revive the play, unseen in New York City for more than 80 years, is canny and smart and prescient. Allie Mulholland is directing, and the productions runs through Oct. 21 at the Living Theatre. For more information and tickets, click here.
And now, 5 questions George Bartenieff has never been asked — and a bonus question.
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
What was your inspiration for starting Theater for the New City?
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Why did you start the Annual Village Halloween Parade?
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“How do you empathize when you play a nasty person?”
4) You debuted on Broadway in 1947, directed by Harold Clurman. What, if anything, do young actors know of their craft or the business that you wish you’d known 65 years ago?
Truth is, I think that every actor begins with his instinct, not knowing much else, and that’s good, because each instinct leads, with more experience, to a unique way of expressing a particular world view – the audience appreciates a diversity of character in order to help them understand what the play’s author wants them to experience, to learn.
5) 1931- is not “museum theater” — the play’s issues are as relevant to Americans now as when the Group Theatre produced it 81 years ago. Would you agree that the challenge for this production theatrically is the mindset of current audiences? If so (or not), how can actors spark the same audience response as was seen at the original production?
Reviving any play is a tricky challenge; the original freshness and urgency are history. Luckily or unluckily, history repeats itself, so there’s a new urgency that the director and actors understand: with a dedicated collaboration and devotion to the skill and purpose the authors intended, we can also reinvent the play’s relevancy to the current job crisis.
6) If you could chat with one dead playwright — either one you worked with or wish you worked with — who would it be? What is the one question you would ask him or her?
I would like to ask Samuel Beckett exactly how his survival during World War II informs the themes in his plays and his characters.