Bialystock & Bloom

Milwaukee, Wisconsin


To get an authentic sense of Bialystock & Bloom, the Milwaukee theater company that will close in May after 11 years and 40 productions, eavesdrop on the three founders and a reporter crowded around a small table in a busy downtown coffee shop.

Jokes are flying. Ideas for shows and promotions bubble up. Wisecracks ricochet around the table.

Gallows humor is partially responsible for the mood, but one gets the feeling that Jonathan West, Scott Howland and Stephan Roselin just can't help themselves. These are the boys who had an "official beer" sponsor for their company. Plugging the beer usually included chugging a beer at the curtain-raising speech before performances.

These are the boys who gleefully persuaded actresses and an occasional actor to expose more than their talent on stage. The B&B Christmas fund-raising event in 2002 was "The Dirty Song Sing-A-Long and Holiday Cookie Bake Sale."

"Psycho Beach Party" sold the most tickets of any of their productions. "Polish Joke" scored the largest box office gross.

Consider the play titles of some of the company's productions. "Fat Men in Skirts" and "Poona the (expletive) Dog" conjure up a raucous frat party rather than serious stagecraft.

It's easy to lose sight of the reality that Bialystock & Bloom was more than towel-snapping theater being practiced by a trio of wacky guys on their final bachelor flings. Provocative theater was the company mandate, and that didn't mean it was an 11-year toga party.

Bialystock & Bloom produced works written by David Mamet, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, John Guare, Dario Fo, John Patrick Shanley, Eric Bogosian, Joe Orton, Caryl Churchill, Israel Horovitz and an old guy named Shakespeare. It introduced Milwaukee to Neil LaBute and an obscure playwright named Wendy MacLeod, whose wild and woolly comedy "The House of Yes" was a dazzling surprise.

These are the reasons to believe the partners when they say that despite the joking, they are very sad to shutter their company after the final performance of "Zoo Story" on May 21. With its penchant for the edgy and its willingness to camp out on the edge, Bialystock & Bloom occupied a niche that no other theater company fills in Milwaukee. For that reason, local theater is significantly lessened by the company's dissolution.

Bialystock & Bloom owes its existence to the late-night stage series Theatre X produced in the 1990s. West, Roselin and Howland wanted to mount one show, Martin Sherman's "Bent," and Theatre X, which went out of business in 2004, provided the producing muscle for the venture.

When "Bent" was well received, people asked the trio what they were going to stage next. The partners had not planned a next. Bialystock & Bloom accidentally evolved.

"I was probably the most reluctant of anyone to do this," West said.

The company stayed in the Theatre X late-night format for three years, sometimes testing the ability of its audience to stay awake by starting lengthy shows such as "The Elephant Man" at 11 p.m. Everyone worked for no pay during those years, and production budgets hovered around $500.

Eventually stepping out on its own, B & B performed at multiple venues, and when it mounted the Sam Shepard classic "True West" in 1999, it began compensating the actors, designers and tech staff.

But "True West" was a milestone for more than that. It was gripping, compelling theater that moved Bialystock & Bloom into the performing arts big leagues in Milwaukee.

The company hit that mark with increasing regularity in the last few years. Its 2004 production of "An Empty Plate at the Café Du Grand Boeuf" and 2005 staging of "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea," two radically different plays, were among the best work done in the state in those years.

"Danny" emphasized another benefit of having B & B in the theater community. The two-character drama included actress Sarah Sokolovic, whom the company found and professionally nurtured when she was barely out of high school. Now based in New York, she spent a season with the American Players Theatre in Spring Green and is currently back in her hometown rehearsing for the next Milwaukee Repertory Theater Powerhouse Theater production, "A Month in the Country."

Bialystock & Bloom offered opportunities to young actors who needed experience and exposure. "In a lot of ways, I grew up as an artist and as a human being with those men," Sokolovic recently said. "They took chances on me when many others wouldn't."

Declining ticket sales over the last several years and a $25,000 debt made the B & B partners pessimistic about the viability of their company if major changes were not made. They were not willing to take fewer chances on plays and produce more mainstream comedies. They also were unwilling to scale back actors' pay and production values.

"We are pigheaded enough to say we would rather stop," West said. All three men now have wives, children and mortgages, and the idea of regressing back to building sets in West's garage is not appealing.

Seeing trouble ahead, Bialystock & Bloom approached the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's board to explore the possibility of the companies merging when Montgomery Davis stepped down as the Chamber's artistic director.

"Our idea was that it would have become an entirely new company," West said. But the suggestion was not pursued.

For more than two decades professional theater in Milwaukee vigorously expanded while other cities struggled to keep theaters alive. With Theatre X's dissolution, the Bialystock & Bloom closing and the Chamber's Theatre continuing money woes, the health of theater here is called into question.

"We are all competing for one audience," West said. "There is a theater-going audience in Milwaukee. Though it has expanded, I don't think it has expanded at the rate that companies like ours have grown."

"The really sad thing about us closing is there are a lot of plays on our list that we never got to do," Howland said. With that, a collective gleam appears in the eyes of the Bialystock & Bloom boys.

"You never know. We could all grow mustaches and come back to do things, and people wouldn't know it was us," Howland continued.

"We're full of schemes, unfortunately," West added. "We're done with this chapter of our lives, but it doesn't mean we don't have things up our sleeves. If we were to do something in the future, it would be more of a 'what the hell' thing."

That is how Bialystock & Bloom started.

---Damien Jaques, JS Online