The Little Theater That Could

The Little Theater That Could

- in Real Estate
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The little theater with a red awning never produced cultural titans like Philip Glass or Sam Shepard. It now shares a wall with a boutique hotel next door, and its vaguely Southern antebellum-looking building seems to be sinking into the pavement. It hasn’t been a formal repertory company staffed with actors for about a decade, and its biggest claim to fame, “Line,” the longest running play in New York, has been on hiatus since the spring.

“It will be back soon,” said Mr. Battista of “Line,” an absurdist sketch about five people striving to be first in line, which became, some argue, Off Off Broadway’s “Waiting for Godot.” It began at 13th Street in 1974 and was written by Israel Horovitz.

Others suggested that “Line” had come to an end. “I think some of us prepared to say goodbye at the last performances,” said Jay Michaels, the publicist for the show. “It might come back, but I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t.”

Mario Claudio, 37, who acted in it last season, said: “I don’t think it’s a delay; I think it’s over. I don’t know if it’s coming back because I don’t know the survivability of this theater.”

Further complicating 13th Street’s legacy is that its petite and fiery founder, Edith O’Hara, is now 100, and one of the last doyennes of the early Off Off Broadway movement. She sleeps most days in a bed in her apartment, located above the theater. A window is kept open through which birds can be heard singing outside.

In the early ’70s, Ms. O’Hara saw a rental listing in The Village Voice for a building that contained a small theater. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” she said.

Credit
John Taggart for The New York Times

Raised in northern Idaho, Ms. O’Hara moved to New York on the back of a lover’s motorcycle when she was 50 after quitting her job as a kindergarten teacher. She became a Village fixture known for her charmed bohemian existence. Living in a cluttered apartment on the building’s third floor, she descended daily to operate the playhouse. She ended nights with a can of Coors Light and offered lodging, wherever she could find it, to countless young actors, many of whom called her a “mother of the Village.” During a recent visit, her two daughters, Jill and Jenny O’Hara, held her hands as she spoke, while a nurse kept watch.

Edith O’Hara in an undated photograph.

Ms. O’Hara’s age is no insignificant detail at 13th Street. It looms over everything. “Edith is the Rep, and the Rep is Edith,” was a sentiment echoed frequently in interviews with those close to the Repertory last month. “And Edith is not well,” said Mr. Michaels. “So the Rep is not well.”

The theater and its building, 50 West 13th Street, were at the center of a bitter real-estate dispute over a decade ago. Ms. O’Hara, then in her 90s, refused to sell her share in the building to its majority shareholder, a bookseller in Baltimore, who threatened to evict her, and the fight, at least in Greenwich Village, became a New York David and Goliath story.

“Facing Eviction, Theater Icon Vows Show Will Go On,” read a 2006 headline in The Villager, a weekly newspaper. Ms. O’Hara was offered $2 million to give up her share — she called it a “sweetheart deal” — but still refused. “I’ve spent my life building an important cultural legacy here, and I won’t sell my stock,” she said in a short film about the theater. “I won’t take his deal.”

After much acrimony, a settlement was reached in 2010. Members of the O’Hara family, prohibited from discussing the arrangement, said in an emailed statement to The Times: “The past disputes were resolved for her lifetime and that after her passing there is no provision for what comes next.”

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