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Penthouse Pets... and paychecks from Harvard?

For Randy Weiner, the impresario of Oberon and husband of the ART's Diane Paulus, theater is one big party after another

Randy Weiner on the set of “Caligula Maximus,’’ his latest theatrical production in New York. Randy Weiner on the set of “Caligula Maximus,’’ his latest theatrical production in New York. (Elizabeth Lippman for The Boston Globe)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / March 28, 2010

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NEW YORK — On a Friday evening in a gritty theater space on the lower East Side, Randy Weiner watches from the wooden bleachers with a smile on his face.

He actually always seems to be smiling. Not a full-blown grin but a sort of bemused, wry, I-just-can’t-believe-I’m-doing-this look.

At the moment, the focus of Weiner’s attention is the first run-through of an off-off-Broadway musical he’s co-written and helped produce called “Caligula Maximus.’’ The show kicks off with a topless Penthouse Pet, Justine Joli, carried in on what happens to be a 9-foot-long cardboard penis.

Just before the performance begins, Weiner acknowledges that his wife, Diane Paulus, suggested it might not be ideal for him to be highlighting the Penthouse Pets involved in the show, the way he did in a recent press release. She is, after all, artistic director at the Harvard-based American Repertory Theater, one of the most important regional theaters in the country. And Weiner is the consultant Harvard hired to convert the ART’s second stage, Zero Arrow Theatre, into Oberon, a booming performance space and club.

Weiner doesn’t care if people find out about the Pets. In fact, he’s thrilled to be melding classical tragedy, circus acrobatics, wrestling, and soft porn. In typically overblown fashion, he says he’s having an existential crisis.

“I went to Harvard, my wife’s at an important institution, my daughter goes to a fancy nursery school,’’ he says. “Should I be working with people from Penthouse? Should I be hanging around with people like this?’’

Then he shrugs.

“This is my problem,’’ he says, as a bodybuilder in a leather jockstrap walks by. “I just want to have a good time.’’

That’s not all Weiner wants. Over 15 years, he and Paulus have collaborated on a series of projects creating a kind of theater that’s unpredictable, wildly popular, and sometimes controversial. The best example is “The Donkey Show,’’ a glittery Donna Summer-meets-Shakespeare musical concoction that debuted in New York City in 1999 and since last summer has been drawing lines of clubgoers to Oberon’s doors near Harvard Square.

While Paulus has been credited with bringing a more populist approach to the ART this season, Weiner’s at the center of the push. Oberon is his idea, from the space’s disco ball to its go-go platforms and a well-stocked bar serving beer, wine, and cocktails costing as much as $15. He also connected the ART with Punchdrunk, the British company that staged the phenomenon “Sleep No More,’’ an eerie, Hitchcock-style “Macbeth’’ adaptation in an unused Brookline school building — a production that became one of the hardest tickets to get in town before it closed. Weiner also co-wrote “Best of Both Worlds,’’ an R&B version of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,’’ which Paulus directed as the ART’s third production this season, rounding out the company’s “Shakespeare Exploded!’’ festival.

Weiner’s relationship with Harvard and the ART is unorthodox by the standards of most nonprofits. The university owns the Oberon building and takes in the revenues from it, but Weiner owns the trademark to Oberon and is paid a monthly royalty. To create the club, he drew on his experience as one of the owners of the Box, a hot New York burlesque nightspot that journalists like to describe as “hedonistic.’’

The idea, he says, is that most clubs allow people in for free so they’ll spend money on drinks. Weiner does better. He has the bar plus the show.

“What a show at a club is, it’s a promotion, like a wet T-shirt contest, it’s karaoke, it’s girls get in free,’’ he says. “The genius of doing a show is that people will actually pay for that promotion. I’m winning on the promotion and I’m winning on the drink.’’

Mixed impressions
Weiner knows how to run a club. If you can get into the Box, you’ll end up paying more than $1,000 for a table. At Oberon, where “The Donkey Show’’ is running through this summer, his Weiner Theatricals oversees the action, holding weekly staff meetings, helping with planning, and generally leveraging Weiner’s club experience to help the space, which hosts other events in addition to the primary show.

Neither Harvard nor Weiner would say how much he is paid as part of his contract, nor reveal revenue numbers for Oberon. But attendance figures Harvard provided make it clear the club has been a hit. In fiscal year 2008, its final full year as Zero Arrow, the theater sold 19,509 tickets. So far, the ART has sold 27,072 tickets to Oberon, and the fiscal year goes till the end of July.

Weiner points out that Oberon’s booking system — in which visiting groups pay no booking fee, but guarantee that clubgoers will spend a minimum of around $1,500 at the bar — allows the ART to take risks that most major nonprofits can’t take. Upcoming events include dance, a quiz show, comedy, burlesque, and “Evelyn Evelyn,’’ billed as a “conjoined-twin singer-songwriter duo,’’ presented by Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls.

But despite all of Oberon’s success, Weiner occupies an awkward position at Harvard.

The university has gone to great lengths to stress that Paulus had nothing to do with his hiring. ART insiders who have concerns refuse to speak about him on the record, saying they don’t want to alienate his wife.

Dan Pecci, a recent Harvard graduate who worked until last month at Oberon as program associate and served as a teaching assistant in a Harvard class Weiner taught, describes the impresario as a polarizing figure. The ART’s old guard has generally not been pleased with Weiner’s role at Oberon, Pecci said. (ART founding director Robert Brustein and former executive director Robert Orchard both declined to comment for this article.)

“I think when you’re talking with Randy, you’re a Randy fan,’’ Pecci said. “If you’re not with him and with other people, it’s very easy to switch sides. I find him magnetic and charming, but at the same time, do you trust him?’’

Weiner’s arrangement is controversial enough that the ART’s newly named producer, Diane Borger, wouldn’t comment on Weiner, saying she hadn’t worked at the company long enough. (In fact, Borger’s son-in-law is Simon Hammerstein, one of Weiner’s two partners at the Box.)

Donald Ware, chairman of the ART board of trustees, declined an interview request, instead issuing a statement through Harvard that noted Oberon’s success and praised Weiner as “a nationally recognized theater pioneer who has successfully melded the energy of the nightclub with the drama of the stage.’’

Weiner, for his part, doesn’t do much to try to embrace the traditional theater crowd, whose world his wife has entered. And he worries about an end to the couple’s artistic collaborations.

“Many people in the theater are not human beings. It’s like a fantasy and cult,’’ he says. “I worry I could lose Diane. She gets more and more out of my reach as she does those things. But I think having me there every day as a pin to prick the balloon of her theater normalcy, that’s a big advantage she has.’’

A family man
Weiner doesn’t look like a rebel. He’s clean-shaven, with short hair that’s dark except for a gray patch in front that looks as if it’s been swiped by an errant paintbrush. He rarely goes out to the Box. He’s usually sleeping at home, where he takes care of the couple’s two daughters, 3 and 5. (Paulus rents a house in Cambridge but regularly returns to their New York home.)

A conversation with Weiner is freewheeling. He questions his own motives, talks about his problems with institutions, and doesn’t seem to worry about his public image. That’s in contrast to Paulus, who, for all the energy of her stage productions, tends to speak calmly and in measured tones about her personal and professional lives.

Weiner and Paulus have been together since their high school days in New York, and they both went on to Harvard, where she majored in social studies and he in psychology.

“Diane is very put together, very presentable, very charming,’’ says Rob Hanning, a writer who was Weiner’s college roommate at Harvard. “There’s a grace and elegance to her that seeps through everything that she does. Randy is pure energy that knows no bounds.’’

Darren Sussman, the president of the marketing and ticketing company Theater Mania, which has worked with shows at the Box and Oberon, calls Weiner the Howard Stern of theater.

“On one level, he’s married to his high school sweetheart, he’s got two kids, goes home every night, doesn’t drink or smoke,’’ says Sussman. “In his theatrical performances, he pushes the envelope with challenging, cutting-edge work in nightclubs. Like Howard Stern, he’s not his own customer.’’

As a child, Weiner’s father would take him to plays constantly. He found most of them “unbelievably boring.’’ But he met Paulus through a high school production of “Wonderful Town’’ in 1982, and they both attended the ART as undergrads.

It was at Harvard that Weiner began creating shows of his own, including a hip-hop musical co-written with Hanning and staged in the basement of Leverett House. Over the years, Weiner and Paulus, who married in 1995, created more than a half-dozen shows together, including a version of Puccini’s “Turandot’’ told through wrestling and an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors’’ set in a karaoke bar. He wrote the story for “Death and the Powers,’’ an opera by composer Tod Machover and librettist Robert Pinsky that will debut in Monte Carlo this year and come to Boston next season.

On his own, Weiner’s work has ranged from the heavy metal musical “Stairway to Hell’’ in New York to producing entertainment for events ranging from Art Basel Miami to a White House correspondents dinner and “American Idol’’ judge Simon Cowell’s 50th birthday party.

The thread that runs through everything is Weiner’s belief that theater should be an adventure. He loves to mix high art with low. Theater, he believes, should be a party, not a performance in which you’re forced to shift in your chair to stay awake.

He has heard the criticism of “The Donkey Show’’: that it’s just an excuse to channel the spirit of Studio 54.

“Do I think ‘The Donkey Show’ is the greatest show in the world? Hell no,’’ he says. “Do I think it’s a great time? Yes.’’

When she’s told that her husband, who has written, directed, or produced around 50 works, has once again declared his hate of the theater, Paulus doesn’t flinch.

“You know, I don’t think he hates theater,’’ she says. “I think he hates the limited definition of theater. He loves the potential of what theater can be. He’s completely obsessed with making live events.’’

‘It’s just fun’
“Caligula Maximus’’ is just that kind of event, an over-the top, circus-like extravaganza. The show, Weiner is thrilled to say, will cost only about $10,000 for its run at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre, which extends through April 17. Starring Ryan Knowles as Caligula and Joli as his wife, the production boasts bodybuilders, a trapeze artist, a naked juggler, and a rock band that never met a Led Zeppelin riff it didn’t like. It also features a Weiner trademark: audience members lured onstage into a “cosmic pool’’ to hang with the show’s assortment of odd performers.

“How do you go back to the roots of theater? We’re doing this for nothing,’’ Weiner says. “It’s just fun. It’s how we used to do it.’’

Before the show, he walks around the set, past the giant phallus, recycled from an earlier show at the Box.

“I repurposed it,’’ he says. “I don’t have the ART’s budget.’’

During the staged run-through with an audience, Weiner furiously takes notes on his BlackBerry. The show needs to move faster. The fake baby needs more blood. The half-naked Joli should face the crowd more.

At the end, he heads to the back of the theater to talk with Nick Guccione, son of Penthouse founder Bob Guccione, who’s here with his pony-tailed manager Steve Karel, a television producer. Karel boasts of how he created a program based on MTV’s successful “Jersey Shore,’’ calling it “Jersey Shore: Hoes on the Beach.’’ Karel also suggests a pay-per-view deal with Weiner. “There’s a piece of business here.’’

Later that night, at Katz’s Deli, Weiner’s not talking about the offer, which he later turns down. Over a pastrami sandwich and chocolate egg cream, he mentions wistfully that he and Paulus used to come in and share an order of fries when they were too poor to afford much else. Just around the corner, the couple staged their original production of “The Donkey Show’’ at Club El Flamingo.

The conversation shifts to the ART. Weiner’s working on a new idea, one he hopes will capture the spirit of Oberon and “Sleep No More.’’ It will be a scavenger hunt that will start when a ticket holder gets a phone call telling you to show up on such and such street or the back room of a bar.

“And from the moment I make that call to you the night before, you’re going to be so excited. The possibilities,’’ he says, smiling, “are unlimited.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.