SNL Designer Keeps Long Wharf Set Simple

Brian Slattery Photo On Wednesday — the day before Long Wharf Theatre’s Feb. 16 opening of Napoli, Brooklyn — the year 1960 invaded the theater’s lobby. There was a rack of clothes straight from the era, a textile time warp amid the lobby’s sleek architecture. Two lamps. A chair. Against the far wall was a cart that had three phones in different colors, all with rotary dials and receivers with cords. Potted plants. A statue of the Virgin Mary.

Inside the theater, a dozen crew members in hard hats were putting the final touches on the set. A backdrop showed a row of brownstones. A huge sign hung from the ceiling that read “Duffy Meats.” Also suspended from the ceiling was a large circular stained-glass window, now off to stage right, but looking like it could be moved to the center any time. An old streetlamp hung over the stage like a sentinel. But for a play that switches scenes often, from an apartment to a butcher shop to a factory to a church, the stage itself was remarkably bare. There was a vintage stove and countertop. A bed with a nightstand. A table and chairs. A wooden door in its frame, on wheels, with no wall around it. It could all be moved, all be repurposed, and it was the culmination of months of planning, conversation, design, and construction.

Sightlines Photo In his decades-long career as a set designer, Eugene Lee has worked on innumerable Broadway shows. He has been the set designer for Saturday Night Live since it began. And he has worked with Napoli director Gordon Edelstein a lot; he designed the set for the Edelstein-directed Endgame, which played at Long Wharf just last month. So when Napoli was in its planning stages months ago, Lee was again at the set design helm.

“When we get scripts on Saturday Night, sometimes they’re more like movie scripts than theater scripts,” Lee said. And to Lee, with its numerous scene changes and attention to period detail, Napoli read more like a movie script, too.

“I thought, ‘well, less is more,’” Lee said. “It’s like in Shakespeare, where a character says, ‘where am I?’ and another character says, ‘this is Illyria, lady.’”

“How little do we need to do this?” he thought. “Can we do this scene with one bed?... Maybe they can focus on one table in the middle of the space.”

As Lee and Edelstein continued to develop the concept, they pared things down little further. One bedroom set, they figured, could serve as two different bedrooms.

“You can be on any chair, any table,” and have it be anywhere, Lee said. “You can pantomime hitting the ceiling with a broom” and “make the sound with your foot…. There’s a lot of things you can do in theater that in movies you’d have to do literally.”

“I think it’s best when it’s simple,” Lee added, with humility. “Maybe it’s my old age, I don’t know.”

But keeping it simple took a lot of work, and Long Wharf’s crew of a few dozen got down to it. The pieces for the set were built in Long Wharf’s scene shop, a couple doors down in the complex that houses the theater. (Long Wharf’s scene shop and its theater aren’t actually physically connected — explained Steven Scarpa, Long Wharf’s director of marketing and communications, who took this reporter on a tour — because the space in between them in the Food Terminal complex on Sargeant Drive is occupied by Ideal Printing.

The whole space “was never designed to be a theater,” Scarpa said. “It was for food prep.”

But in the warren of rooms near the scene shop and Long Wharf’s Stage II (where Endgame just closed) are the props room (pictured above) and the wardrobe room, where the walls are lined with shoes, neckties, and hats, ready for the next production.

“The clothes are very realistic — vintage-looking,” Lee said. “So the clothes do the job, period-wise, probably more than the set.” For the costume department, that job could involve anything from raiding vintage clothing and antique stores to making the clothes themselves.

The set pieces were moved into Long Wharf’s mainstage for rehearsals about two weeks ago, and changes continued to be made. There were more decisions to make — for example, about how to depict the 1960 plane crash in Brooklyn, the result of a mid-air collision with another plane that crashed on Staten Island. All 128 passengers on both planes were killed, along with six others on the ground.

“It wiped out what it hit,” Lee said of the plane. “It took a church with it…. You can go to a map and find the actual streets and blocks. At one point we were going to print the map right on the floor. But it seemed too much on the money.”

Though something needed to be done. “Gordon said, ‘there should be some big moment,’” Lee said. “We had talked endlessly about doing more. You could have 500 shoes fall to the ground.” But in the end, they decided it was “too heavy-handed, too muscular for the moment.” They found another way, using the backdrop and a little snow, to convey the event.

For Lee, paring down the set design to its essentials, and making sure that it pulls as much narrative weight as possible, meant “better time spent acting. Actors are never wrong in my book. If you’re looking at the scenery, we’ve done something wrong.”

But maybe it’s worth a glance from time to time, to acknowledge the dozens of people who make it happen.

“At the first rehearsal for a show,” Scarpa said, “they have everybody introduce themselves.” He meant everyone at Long Wharf, all the cast and crew, from artistic director to intern. By the time the production is ready to go, often everyone knows almost everyone else anyway. But “it’s a signal that it’s a communal endeavor,” Scarpa said. “Everybody has a little piece of this.”

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