02/21/2013 04:51 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

Classic Stage Company: A Reversal of Fortune

While waiting for my guest to arrive at Classic Stage Company's Ivanov in November, I overheard a man say: "I have never been to this theater, it's awfully small for the caliber of work they do." Indeed, for those of you who have not been there, the rundown lobby of CSC's east 13th street home doubles as a coffeehouse. It's an unostentatious home for a theater company that, in my opinion, has had the greatest renaissance of any off-Broadway theater company in this millennium.

You see, during my career I have seen theater companies have a bad season or two and then rebound with good ones. But I don't think I've seen a company go from virtual obsolescence to consistent hit maker. What CSC has done is rather amazing.

In the year 2000 (cue Conan O'Brien music), I was new to the theater world. Barry Edelstein was artistic director of CSC and the theater company was, umm, on the decline. I am not sure why. Edelstein expanded CSC's repertoire, producing lesser known works; such a growth can sometimes lead to success, but, in this case, it did not. When Brian Kulick took over in 2003, the company did not exactly go on an immediate upswing.

Kulick often presented an avante guard vision. It's not that all the productions in his early years were horrible, some were good; it's that most were uninteresting to the vast majority of people. Plus, Happy Days was hard to recover from. By 2006-2007, the company was in trouble.

Then Kulick (with the help of executive director Jessica Jenen and others, presumably) turned it around. The real key to the audience returning was the ultra-successful Chekhov Cycle, beginning with the spring 2008 mounting of The Seagull with Alan Cumming and Dianne Wiest. (Also in the cycle were acclaimed Austin Pendleton-helmed productions of Three Sisters with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jessica Hecht, Juliet Rylance and Peter Sarsgaard and Uncle Vanya with Denis O'Hare, Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard.) Other highlights in the last four years have included a ravishing and inventive A Midsummer Night's Dream with Bebe Neuwirth and Christina Ricci, Unnatural Acts and Venus in Fur (which transferred to Broadway). CSC has managed to attract theatergoers and press with both its starry entries and its non-starry ones.

As seen from the list above, CSC has also consistently brought well-respected actors to its tiny stage. Wiest has done three shows there since 2008. For Ethan Hawke, who has worked a lot with the New Group, Ivanov was his first production with CSC.

"Part of the appeal is getting the opportunity to work with the best directors and designers, and still be downtown," Hawke stated. "CSC has genuine passion for what they do."

Ivanov was not the hit the company's past Chekhov entries were. Both critics and audience members were mixed on it. However it sold -- it was far from a step backwards.

Now CSC is presenting what has the potential to be its biggest hit yet, the first fully-staged New York revival of Stephen Sondheim's Passion. The show doesn't officially open until February 28, but word on the street is positive so far and ticket sales have been high. After that, the company is presenting a Brecht play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, with a score by Duncan Sheik and a cast led by Christopher Lloyd. If these productions prove successful, CSC may eventually need a bigger space. Though I really do like the coffee.