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Designing Man

John Lee Beatty, one of the theater's busiest set designers, takes a few precious moments to chat with David Finkle. logo
John Lee Beatty
"I've had directors I've worked with for years who've never seen how I live," John Lee Beatty says over the phone during the preliminary discussion necessary to set up an interview. From anyone else, that remark might not mean much; but it comes as a surprise from Beatty, who is known for designing the best houses seen on Broadway and Off-Broadway stages during the past few decades. He's also designed some mighty fine gardens; at the moment, he is represented not only by the double houses and adjoining back yards for the revival of Morning's at Seven but also by the house and garden in Alan Ayckbourn's House and Garden. Both productions close on July 28, but Beatty is hard at work on new assignment(s).

The titles of the interlocked comedies House and Garden add up to a terse description of Beatty's designs, at least since he came to New York in 1973 from New Haven and the Yale Drama School. Morning's at Seven brought Beatty his eighth Tony Award nomination; he won the first time for Talley's Folly (1980), a show in which both a house and a garden were prominent parts of the set. "It's good to win your first time," he'll tell you, speaking as someone who hasn't won since. "It takes a lot of the pressure off. I highly recommend it."

All of Beatty's Tony nominations--the others were for The Fifth of July, A Small Family Business, Redwood Curtain, The Heiress, A Delicate Balance, and The Little Foxes--recognized sections of homes so beautifully imagined that audience members often seemed ready to move in. (He received actual inquiries as to whether he might be interested in designing actual homes after The Sisters Rosensweig opened.) So it's kind of puzzling for an interviewer to learn that Beatty lives in surroundings that don't look like an Architectural Digest spread--and, more to the point, don't resemble an amalgam of the sets he's thought up.

He's adamant that his digs are unviewable, and so it's agreed that he'll drop by the interviewer's cramped, second-floor quarters for a talk. When he arrives a few days later, all six-feet-plus of him, he's carrying a couple of portfolios. Designs, huh? "Of course--this is my life," he says. On entering the interviewer's apartment, he takes a quick look around and comments: "You've got the book problem, too." He's referring to the book-lined walls and some stacks of books that serve as a makeshift room divider.

After Beatty has relaxed on a long, pillow-covered sofa, he responds monosyllabically to the first and perhaps most obvious question anyone might ask him: What kind of training in architecture has he had? "None," he says, and lets that sink in. Then he adds: "I do it all from memory. I have always loved houses and I draw on that. When I was designing The Sisters Rosensweig, I thought, 'Oh, that's the Darts.'" (The Darts, it turns out, were family friends in Claremont, California where Beatty was raised among schoolteachers.) "And the house in A Delicate Balance is our house--one of them." (Apparently, the Beattys moved around in Claremont. They also spent time in homes in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin; that's where the family summered.)

Nicholas Woodeson and Veanne Cox in Garden
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Beatty has a shock of ginger-colored hair and a bushy mustache. Beneath that mustache he wears an amused smile while discussing his work, about which he'll happily fill you in. He'll say without hesitation that the House house is modeled after the Peter Solomons' Manhattan apartment because Peter Solomon "loves the Brits." (The abode in this production is a baronial manor for which Beatty also appropriated the Solomons' color scheme.) When Beatty came to prepare The Last Night of Ballyhoo, he was able to visit the actual Georgia house in which playwright Alfred Uhry, waxing autobiographical, had placed the action. "It was difficult designing southern United States Spanish revival," Beatty says, "since I'm from California, where the Spanish Revival is more Mexican. The house I was looking at was undergoing renovations and had a boring interior, but I was able to incorporate some of the external detail into the interior. I also used a lot from the building I live in on West 86th Street."

Always juggling more than one project, Beatty is a busy guy. What keeps him especially busy is that he usually can't just design a set and then leave for the next job, because many of the shows he works on transfer to other venues. Since it's the rare set that can be moved as is, he often has to go right back to work on them. A good case in point is Proof, which he first designed for production at Manhattan Theater Club's City Center base. There, the stage is wide and deep but the ceiling's low. When David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning piece traveled to the Walter Kerr, Beatty explains, "I had to take 15 feet off the back of the set and build a second story." About the frequency with which he carts productions from here to there, he says: "Often, I go back and start all over to make sure I get the feeling of the original production, if you know what I mean."

Beatty recalls the very day he decided to design sets. "When I was seven or eight," he reminisces, "my parents took me to see the tryout of Peter Pan with Mary Martin. When I came home, I wanted two things: To fly and to design sets. My parents hoped I would straighten out, but I didn't." At a tender age, then, he was on a fast crawl that led him to Yale, where Ming Cho Lee had just taken over the design department and the recently retired Donald Oenslager still gave guest lectures, as did Jo Mielziner. Beatty suggests that he has also picked up some pointers from the work of one of his other favorites, Robert Edmond Jones.

William Biff McGuire and Elizabeth Franz
in Morning's at Seven
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
As if the full-blown productions he's constantly readying aren't enough to fill his calendar, Beatty is scenic consultant for the City Center Encores! series. He reports that those shows are "a tremendous amount of work. It changes every time and depends on who wants what, who wants to be down front. The orchestra is never the same and can range from 27 to 32 instruments. There is a lot of discussion, and I lose a lot. There was one [production] where nobody was happy." Will he name it? "I most assuredly will not."

There can be no doubt that Beatty's most enduring Encores! set is the one he came up with for Chicago, which happens to be one of his rare non-representational designs. Not that he wouldn't like to do more of those. "I loved Ashes, where draperies were pulled around on tracks," he says. "I love plays with no scenery, or very little, but I don't get asked to do them." He mulls things over. "I think my houses can be a problem. I get criticized for thinking in architectural terms instead of..." He searches for the right word or phrase and doesn't find it, but his meaning is clear: He works toward architectural solutions instead of thinking more abstractly.

Then again, houses and gardens are always in style on domestic stages. "They say British plays are about the class system and American plays are about real estate," Beatty remarks. "It's true! A Streetcar Named Desire is about losing Belle Rève. Morning's at Seven is about who's going to live where." This is Beatty's way of stating that his command of domiciles will likely continue to stand him in good stead.

Which brings him to the designs at his side. "You're not going to review them, are you?" he asks his interviewer. Told "no," he holds up a rough drawing for Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. He's just come from showing it to Joe Mantello, who's directing a Broadway revival of the Terrence McNally play, set to begin previews on July 26 and to open on August 8. The dark, detailed drawing depicts, stage left, the inside of a greasy spoon and, stage right, a drab bedroom. It doesn't look at all like the luxurious edifices Beatty is known for. But whether the drawing is typical or not, it was done by Beatty. "I'm a total anomaly," he says. "I do everything by hand--the designs, the renderings. We build the models after that. I keep them for a while and then throw them out; they're huge, awkward and heavy."

As Beatty picks up his paraphernalia and prepares to leave, his interviewer wonders if the apartment in which the interview has taken place might show up on stage in the future. "I'm thinking all the time," Beatty allows. "Even as I speak to you. I never let a moment go by."

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