Robert Kalfin, the driving force behind the Chelsea Theater Center, which for two decades beginning in 1965 presented adventurous plays that were sometimes too innovative for the theatergoing public and sometimes successful enough that they transferred to Broadway, died on Sept. 20 at a hospice center in Quiogue, a hamlet in Southampton, N.Y. He was 89.
Philip Himberg, a longtime friend, said the cause was acute myeloid leukemia.
Mr. Kalfin directed countless plays in a career that began in his mid-20s and continued into his 80s. In 1965 he started the nonprofit Chelsea Theater Center and became its founding artistic director, with David Long as managing director and George Bari as production manager.
They set up shop in St. Peter’s Church in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, though a strip dance in one of its early offerings got the group tossed out of that church and forced it to move to another. Those were two of several locations it would use over the years, only some of which were in Chelsea.
Mr. Kalfin thought the commercial theaters of the day were limited and unimaginative, and he strove to broaden the theatrical landscape.
“The mission statement, which I came up with, which was very useful, was ‘We will do whatever nobody else is doing and what we think people ought to see,’” he said in an interview in 2014 for the Primary Stages Off-Broadway Oral History Project. “That gave me great leeway.”
The Chelsea achieved particular prominence once it moved to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1968. Its productions there were attention-getting, to say the least. A 1969 staging of “Slave Ship,” written by Amiri Baraka (who was then known as LeRoi Jones) and directed by Gilbert Moses, took on racism, leaving Clive Barnes, reviewing for The New York Times, rattled.
“The play is set in the hold of a ship and the conscience of a nation,” Mr. Barnes wrote.
“The play ends with the symbolic destruction of white America,” he added. “Whitey is got — Black Panther banners are unfurled. This scared and horrified me. I am whitey.”
In 1971 The Times wrote an article about Mr. Kalfin’s troupe that carried the headline “America’s Most Exciting New Theater?” Its productions for the rest of that decade provided further evidence of its stature as one of the scene’s leading innovators.
In 1973 the Chelsea revived the Leonard Bernstein operetta “Candide,” which had failed on Broadway in the 1950s, and gave it a new book, by Hugh Wheeler. Harold Prince directed, and the result was a smash in Brooklyn that became the group’s first transfer to Broadway, where it ran for almost two years.
Another great success was “Strider,” Mark Rozovsky’s play with music based on a Tolstoy story about a piebald horse that is tormented because of its appearance. Mr. Kalfin first saw it in Leningrad, and in 1979 he staged an English-language version at the Westside Theater on West 43rd Street. It drew a strong review from Mel Gussow in The Times.
“We are transported by the ingenuousness and the originality of the show,” he wrote. “Looking closely, we even notice a grittiness that might have been appreciated by Brecht and Weill. The play works on two levels, as a kind of Tolstoyan ‘Black Beauty’ — downbeat but finally inspirational — and as a valid commentary on the injustices of civilization.”
That show, directed by Mr. Kalfin and Lynne Gannaway, transferred to Broadway, where it ran for six months.
By then Mr. Kalfin was seeing a change in theater audiences, one that his company had helped bring about.
“There’s a whole new generation of theatergoers, and they have become elitist in a very positive way,” he told The Times that November, as “Strider” was beginning its Broadway run. “I think they’re bored to death with television and they’re more demanding of theater now because they’re so hungry for nourishment.”
Robert Zangwill Kalfin was born on April 22, 1933, in the Bronx. His father, Alfred, was a real estate developer, and his mother, Hilda Shulman Kalfin, was a teacher.
His childhood memories were of being taken not to the theater but to the Metropolitan Opera, where he and his parents generally ended up in the cheap seats, high up and off to the side.
“My father would hold onto the back of my pants while I leaned over trying to see center stage,” he said in the oral history.
He studied music at the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan (now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and Performing Arts). As a theater major at Alfred University in central New York, he became part of an ambitious department that was staging Bertolt Brecht and other European writers and experimenting with unusual settings — he was in a production of “Androcles and the Lion” that was staged in a gymnasium transformed to look like a Roman arena.
He earned his master’s degree in 1957 at the Yale School of Drama and settled into odd jobs in New York, working for a time in the shipping department at WOR-TV and as a production assistant on a children’s television show in Newark, N.J., that starred a chimpanzee.
In 1959 he directed his first Off Broadway production, “The Golem,” at St. Mark’s Playhouse. His other early efforts included “The Good Soldier Schweik” in 1963, which didn’t go well — a producer interfered so intrusively that Mr. Kalfin withdrew before opening night and sought unsuccessfully to stop the production from opening. When it did, William Glover of The Associated Press called it “one of the season’s worst plays.”
At the Chelsea, Mr. Kalfin sometimes left audiences and critics scratching their heads. That was the case with a 1970 musical called “Tarot” that he staged in Brooklyn, conceived by (as the credits read) The Rubber Duck and directed jointly by “Mr. Duck” (as The Times called him, tongue in cheek) and Mr. Kalfin.
Mr. Barnes hated it. “Pretentiousness is rioting at the Brooklyn Academy of Music,” his review began. Yet the Chelsea was respected enough by then that even in that pan, Mr. Barnes felt compelled to note that the group was facing one of its frequent financial crises at the time, and that “it simply must not be allowed to die.”
The group did not in fact die then; it petered out in the mid-1980s, swamped with debt. Before it did, its other notable successes included “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” the story of a Jewish girl who passes as a boy, which Mr. Kalfin had arranged to have adapted for the stage by Leah Napolin from a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. He directed the play, which opened in Brooklyn in December 1974.
It was a tough road to opening night. Mr. Kalfin clashed with Tovah Feldshuh, who played the title character, and withstood complaints from Orthodox Jewish leaders; he also had to strike a deal with Barbra Streisand, who already owned the rights to the Singer story, which she would turn into a film in 1983. But the play moved to Broadway, where it ran for 223 performances.
Mr. Bari, Mr. Kalfin’s life partner, died in 2013. Mr. Kalfin, who had lived in East Hampton, N.Y., leaves no immediate survivors.
After the Chelsea gave up the ghost, Mr. Kalfin continued to direct in New York and in regional houses; he was still working until recently. One of his post-Chelsea projects in New York was directing a Yiddish version of “Yentl” produced by the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater in 2002. Eleanor Reissa played the title role.
“Even though he’d directed maybe a hundred shows, every time was like the first,” Ms. Reissa, who had worked with him on other shows as well, said by email. “Wide eyed and wide hearted always, infectious joyfulness.”
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