George Street Playhouse just opened its 43rd season and it’s a special one for David Saint, as he is celebrating his 20th anniversary as the theater’s artistic director.
”It goes so fast. I’ve seen so much change in the theater and New Brunswick itself,” he says. “I remember when I first started here, it was tricky to walk around after the show, but now it’s completely changed with new hotels and restaurants and apartment buildings. It’s really changed its character.”
When Mr. Saint first started at the theater, he wanted to showcase new works, and that was something that he wasn’t sure the George Street’s audience would gravitate to.
”People were afraid of the new stuff at first and wanted the more familiar titles, but 20 years later, if we do something that’s familiar, they complain, ‘We’ve already seen that, we want the new stuff,’” he says. “The audiences’ expectations and responses to what we do has definitely changed.”
A highlight of his career at George Street was the development of David Auburn’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning “Proof” during the Playhouse’s 1999 Next Stage Series of new plays.
”I believe so strongly in producing new work as I think more and more New York and others around the country rely on regional non-profit theaters to take the risk,” Mr. Saint says. “It’s been great to see the audience go on this journey with us.”
Mr. Saint’s two-decade tenure has also included world premieres of productions such as “The Toxic Avenger,” “The Spitfire Grill,” “Clever Little Lies” and “It Shoulda Been You,” all of which have moved on to shine on regional, off-Broadway and Broadway stages.
”In the course of the 20 years, I have had other theaters approach me to run their theaters and even though they may offer twice the money or twice the budget, I keep telling them what you can’t measure in money is the extraordinary ability for us to return first-rate artists,” he says. “For me, it’s all about the working relationship with so many great artists. So many of them are based in New York and they want to stay close to home.”
That has led to legends such as Arthur Laurents — who wrote the books for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” and was a mentor to Mr. Saint — premiering new plays at George Street. On stage, performers such as Jack Klugman, Rosemary Harris, Tyne Daly, and Anne Meara taking to the stage during his run as artistic director.
To begin his 20th season, Mr. Saint is directing George Street’s first play of the season, “Mama’s Boy,” which runs through Nov. 6. Written by Rob Urbinati, the play follows the story of Marguerite Oswald, the domineering, obsessive and desperate, need-to-be-loved-by-her-son mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The script provides a chilling glimpse into the family’s household before and after that fateful November afternoon in Dallas.
”Like many projects I do, this came to me through an artist, Betsy Aiden, who is playing Marguerite Oswald,” Mr. Saint says. “She had done a small production of it last summer and sent it to me and thought it was a great project for me. I read it with her in mind, and I was knocked out by it.”
Opening it during what Mr. Saint describes as “a crazy election period” seemed like fortuitous timing.
”What’s fascinating is Rob has some of the most outlandish dialogue, and you think this woman is an incredible character, but it’s actually drawn from real-life interviews she gave,” he says. “She is sort of a combination of Amanda from ‘The Glass Menagerie’ and Medea.”
Mr. Saint spent the summer reading books and interviews Marguerite Oswald has done — and there were lots — and was impressed with how Mr. Urbinati could put it into dramatic form and fashion a beautifully moving paced show.
”I think Rob’s point of view is that it’s a family play and this family was a poor family. She went through three husbands and had three children, two of which she had to put into an orphanage,” Mr. Saint says. “It looks at what the economics of the time did to the family and what the family dynamics did to raise such a boy as Lee.”
In addition to his work at George Street, Mr. Saint has numerous projects going on. This summer, he directed a two-night concert performance of “West Side Story” at the Hollywood Bowl, and he’s also been collaborating with Steven Spielberg on an updated film adaptation of the musical.
”I am the executor of Arthur Laurents’ estate and my work is mainly working with Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner, who is adapting the screenplay,” he says. “It’s all systems go. I assume within this next year it will go into shooting so it’s exciting.”
“Mama’s Boy” continues at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, through Nov. 6. For information, go to www.georgestreetplayhouse.org or call 732-246-7717.