Miami-Dade County

Battle over Coconut Grove Playhouse to play out Thursday

A woman rides her bike past the vacant Coconut Grove Playhouse
A woman rides her bike past the vacant Coconut Grove Playhouse MIAMI HERALD STAFF

God save the Coconut Grove Playhouse.

Nine years after the abrupt closure of the historic but money-hemorrhaging playhouse, Miami-Dade County is finally set to ink agreements with architects and an award-winning dramatic company to revamp and reopen the state-owned theater as a high-caliber but far smaller, financially stable operation.

But now the Grove’s county commissioner and the chairman of the Arsht Center trust say they have a better idea, and they’ve thrown a giant monkey wrench into Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s painstakingly constructed plan: Kevin Spacey.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez and Arsht chair Mike Eidson say the actor and producer, fresh off a decade as artistic director of London’s Old Vic, which he’s credited with saving from a near-certain demise, is interested in helping do the same for the Playhouse, though he hasn’t yet committed to anything.

For that to happen, though, Suarez and Eidson say they first need to undo the county’s plan, which was years in the making, and replace it with a grander, pricier alternative.

That county plan, approved by the Florida Cabinet and the Miami-Dade commission after extensive negotiation, calls for a 300-seat theater, markedly reducing the Playhouse’s current 1,100-seat capacity, to be operated jointly by Florida International University and GableStage, now based at the Biltmore Hotel and regarded as one of the best small theater companies in the southeast.

To go forward, administration officials say, the plan requires just a final OK from the commission on an operating agreement with GableStage and a contract with a design team led by Grove-based Arquitectonica, which won a competitive bid for the restoration job. The county has $20 million in voter-approved bond money for the project.

But Suarez and Eidson are contemplating a significantly larger theater of about 700 to 750 seats, to be run by FIU and a new nonprofit group that Eidson is forming. They say it would put Broadway and Hollywood stars on its stage and theatergoers in its seats, thus helping revitalize a corner of the Grove economically devastated by the playhouse’s absence. GableStage would be relegated to a smaller companion theater.

“I really believe in this,” said Eidson, an attorney and veteran arts advocate who is acting independently of the Arsht, while dismissing the county’s plan as unambitious. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for us. Coconut Grove Playhouse is a magical property. We want to get this thing moving. What we’re trying to do is offer an alternative vision.”

But supporters of the county revival plan say the effort has gone beyond alternative visions to an unsavory battle for control of the Playhouse’s future, replete with allegations of favoritism, attacks on the reputation and capacity of GableStage and its lauded artistic director, Joe Adler, and spurious conspiracy theories that the county has secretly decided to demolish the historic playhouse.

Suarez, who says he doubts GableStage is up to the job of running a revived Playhouse, filed a complaint with the county’s inspector general about possible favoritism toward the theater company by the county. Eidson questioned whether Adler, who is 74, is too old to tackle a bigger role, and noted the company has no designated successor as yet.

The director angrily rejects the notion that he can’t hack it because of his age.

“I find that really disturbing,” Adler said, offering to release his medical records. “Talk to my board. Talk to my actors and the people I work with and the people who come to my plays. My energy has not flagged a bit. I feel like this has become personal. He can say we don’t belong there. You don’t have to take a shot at me or our operation.”

Adler says he has not hired a successor because the company’s Biltmore lease is month to month, making it difficult to offer anyone a long-term contract. One goal of the playhouse plan, Adler and county officials stress, is to secure a permanent home for the company, one of the county’s most important cultural groups, allowing it to expand its production capacity and the variety of its offerings, now limited by its 150-seat house in a converted hotel meeting room with no backstage space.

Though Suarez sponsored and voted in favor of the original county plan, he now questions how GableStage was selected and why Miami-Dade Senior Adviser Michael Spring, the county’s longtime cultural affairs director, insists on moving forward with it.

Suarez, who has publicly said he’s considering challenging Gimenez for the mayor’s seat, has put his two-theater proposal up for public discussion Thursday during a meeting of the commission’s economic prosperity committee, which he chairs. His staff has been calling on critics of the existing county plan to show up and support the new deal, including by reaching out to a blog pushing the demolition theory.

Adler, meanwhile, is also rallying supporters to the hearing. But Suarez says he doesn’t mean for it to become a showdown.

“For the moment, what I want is for people to give us their view of what they’d like to see there,” Suarez said. “The community is divided. I expect lots of questions about why we need to get into any kind of agreement with anyone at this point.”

Spring, who dismisses the objections as “nonsense” and “nasty,” says his motives are simple.

“We’re implementing the plan we agreed to implement to bring theater back to the Grove, and that’s pretty straightforward,” he said, noting that both the public and county commissioners were fully and frequently apprised of negotiations and planning. “The record stands incredibly clear.”

The county recruited GableStage because the state, concerned about a repeat of the fiasco that led to the playhouse closure when a nonprofit group given control of the theater ran it into the ground financially, wanted an established company with a stable track record in the driver’s seat, Spring said. GableStage had been in talks to take over management of the theater under the old board, before the county ever got involved, Adler said.

“GableStage provided us with credibility with the state,” Spring said.

Spring and the chair of the county’s cultural affairs commission, banker Adolfo Henriques, say they fear Suarez and Eidson could end up torpedoing years of work. They say say they would be delighted to incorporate Eidson’s proposal into the revival plan — if he can show them the money, and a viable program.

Eidson, who commissioned an extensive study at his own expense, says adding a 700-seat theater would require around $30 million to $35 million more, an amount Spring says likely underestimates the costs. Eidson contends he can raise that in full from private sources by the time the county is ready to build, in about two years, and would run the operation without public subsidy.

To accommodate the alternative, the contract with Arquitectonica asks the team to develop a blueprint under which the second theater could be built along with the smaller GableStage theater should Eidson’s plan pan out, Spring said.

The team will also evaluate the existing building, a 1920s Mediterranean-style movie house widely considered an architectural and cultural landmark, to determine how much of it can be restored and reused. Any renovation, alteration or demolition plan would have to be approved by Miami’s historic preservation board, which has designated the building a protected landmark, and would likely set off a protracted battle.

Eidson has previously publicly suggested he considers the rundown playhouse building to be unsalvageable, and proposed building a new theater while reproducing the historic facade. But he has since backed off that stance.

“We would work together with the preservation people,” he said recently. “It’s been designated historic, so you have to deal with that.”

Spring and Henriques, meanwhile, say it would be irresponsible to delay or drop a specific, viable plan that’s on the verge of realization for a vague promise that’s not funded, vetted or fleshed out.

“We have to have something in place that’s more concrete than just a promise,” Henriques said. “You can’t formulate plans around something in the abstract.”

Nor can the county count on Spacey’s participation at this point, they said.

Spring, who met with Spacey twice, acknowledges the star is interested. But he says Spacey made it clear he’s not looking to become a full-time artistic director, but might take an as-yet-undefined consulting role. While tantalizing, Spring said, that doesn’t necessarily mean Spacey would be the right person for the job.

Eidson, who met Spacey, a frequent South Florida visitor, through his role at the Arsht, declined to put a reporter in touch with the actor, who could not be reached independently.

“Kevin wants to stay in the background until the county decides whether it wants to go forward with this or not. I don’t want to do anything that’s going to discourage him,” Eidson said.

“There’s a lot of places where he could be involved if he could be. We want to bring the greatest writers across and directors back to Miami again, to have something really big and important.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of time the Playhouse has been closed. It has been closed for nine years.

If you go:

The county’s economic prosperity committee will meet Thursday at 2 p.m. at the County Commission chambers, 111 NW 1st St.

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