Best Mom-and-Pop Theater

Arts & Entertainment

Why do we love what John Kazanjian and his wife, Mary Ewald, do at New City Theater? Let us count the ways: (1) Because they spell it "theater" and not "theatre," a subtle difference that makes us know they walk the talk about it being a place for the masses. (2) Because when they were doing Wallace Shawn's The Fever many years ago in their own home on Capitol Hill, they put a sign on the door asking visitors not to knock loudly and wake the baby. (3) Because that baby grew up to be Elena Kazanjian, who joined her mother onstage as part of father John's production of Caryl Churchill's Far Away. (4) Because the poisonous, pitch-black Far Away was one of 2003's best productions. (5) Because on opening night of his staging of Shawn's The Designated Mourner, Kazanjian himself was calmly adjusting lights and set pieces while the audience took their seats. (6) Because the trenchant, troubling Designated Mourner was one of 2004's best productions. (7) Because they've spent the past few seasons doing some of the city's best productions in a SoDo warehouse with just chairs, a few risers, and a curtain on a wire.

It doesn't surprise us in the least that Kazanjian and Ewald were married back in 1981 in what some people would consider a makeshift manner: "We got hitched in my parents' backyard," Ewald laughs.

Everything the couple touches seems to be simply made and made to last. While other theater companies, both professional and fringe, spent the last decade feeling the fallout from financial overreach ("Everyone was building, building, building," Kazanjian recalls), New City has had the luxury of producing what it wants, when it wants. And, thankfully, what it wants are plays that stick in your craw, perilous thought pieces from unnerving playwrights like Churchill and Shawn that require an audience to actively listen or miss the point.

Kazanjian has the articulate, low-key confidence of some scruffy college professor—he is, in fact, an adjunct instructor of contemporary theater studies at Cornish—while Ewald has the deep, pensive eyes of an actress capable of either damning or delighting you with one look. Together they seem as quietly indomitable as the work they've been creating. They meant to produce a bit of Bush-baiting this past spring, then sent out a press release saying, "[A]fter 3 weeks of work we were not fully engaged by the play and we figured if we weren't fully engaged you wouldn't be either so we stopped work." (Make that Reason No. 8 on the Why We Love Them list.)

They're moving their marvelous company out of that SoDo warehouse after nearly four years, but it's not the last we'll see of them. They've got With a Dead March at On the Boards in October, a commissioned play that W. David Hancock (The Convention of Cartography) wrote for Ewald; The Toaster, by local writer Rebecca Brown, which is in the fund-raising stage for a 2006 premiere; and a collaboration with Todd Jefferson Moore, who last worked with Kazanjian back in the '90s for the successful Rep transfer In the Heart of the Wood.

"I'm interested in the marathon, in longevity, and making more work," Kazanjian says.

We have the sneaking suspicion that whatever New City gets its hands on will be here to stay.

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