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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

There was a time when the members of Labyrinth Theater Company rehearsed in each other's apartments and in a rundown, rat-infested theater on New York's Upper West Side. Fifteen years later, the troop has grown to 96 members, including an Oscar-winning actor and a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. The New York Times called Labyrinth one of the pre-eminent theatrical ensembles in New York. Labyrinth is celebrating its 15th anniversary with another off-Broadway hit called "Jack Goes Boating."

Tom Vitale reports.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOM VITALE: Opening night, 15 minutes after the standing ovation for Labyrinth's new play, the cast and company arrived at the trendy V Bar around the corner from the public theater to celebrate their latest success. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won an Oscar two years ago for the lead role in "Capote," is the co-artistic director of the company.

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN (Actor; Co-Artistic Director, Labyrinth Theater Company): I like doing films very much. But why got into acting was for the theater. It is a challenge and it really is a humbling experience, and it's a exciting experience, and a challenging experience in a way that film can't give you. And it's important to have it if I want to try to be the best actor I could be.

VITALE: Hoffman plays the title character in "Jack Goes Boating," a socially inept limousine driver who braids his hair in dreadlocks, smokes a lot of pot, and is fixated on the Reggae tune "Rivers of Babylon."

(Soundbite of song "Rivers of Babylon")

THE MELODIANS (Reggae Band): (Singing) By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down, and there we wept when we remembered Zion.

VITALE: In the first act, Jack is trying to make a date with the equally awkward Connie, who has just been mugged in the subway.

(Soundbite of stage play, "Jack Goes Boating")

Mr. HOFFMAN (Actor): (As Jack) Hi.

Ms. BETH COLE (Actress): (As Connie) I took a beating.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jack) I brought a friend.

Ms. COLE: (As Connie) Oh.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jack) It's a koala bear.

Ms. COLE: (As Connie) From Australia.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jack) Yeah, authentic koala.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLE: (As Connie) Look at those feet.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jack) I'm sorry you were attacked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLE: (As Connie) Me, too.

VITALE: Labyrinth was founded 15 years ago as the LAB Theater - an acronym for Latino Actors Base - but it quickly became a multicultural ensemble. Daphne Rubin-Vega, the original Mimi in "Rent," joined Labyrinth at its inception in 1992. She said the company started out in a semi-abandoned Hell's Kitchen Theater as an actor's workshop.

Ms. DAPHNE RUBIN-VEGA (Actress): The LAB is up on 52nd Street and like 10th Avenue in that now famous rat-infested place. And we go there like, you know, when it was late and dangerous and it was like we really wanted to be there. I mean, you know, we wanted to go up there in a place that didn't have much heat so that we could play acting games and be free to be foolish and experiment.

VITALE: Now, Rubin-Vega is one of four members of the cast of "Jack Goes Boating." She played the wife of Jack's best friend, who is portrayed by Labyrinth founder and co-artistic director, John Ortiz.

(Soundbite of stage play, "Jack Goes Boating")

Ms. VEGA (Actress): (As Lucy) What's with Jack?

Mr. JOHN ORTIZ (Actor): (As Clyde) He was upset about a guy on the train eating potato chips.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ORTIZ: (As Clyde) (Unintelligible) with his mouth, stuff falling all over.

Ms. VEGA: (As Lucy) You need (unintelligible). He got you and me and the limo job, that's it.

Mr. ORTIZ: (As Clyde) That's it for me. I got you, Jack, the friend - I drive a limo.

VITALE: "Jack Goes Boating" was written by Bob Glaudini. He's been with the company for two years. Stephen Adley Guirgis has been there since the beginning. He joined as an actor, but John Ortiz asked him to start writing for the company. Guirgis' play's "In Arabia, We'd All Be Kings," "Jesus hopped the A' Train," and "Our Lady of 121st Street" one critical acclaim and put Labyrinth on the map. All of them were directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Mr. HOFFMAN: I had this play, "In Arabia, We'd All Be Kings," in a, I guess, '99, and they said, well, who do you want to direct? You know, and Phil asked me, I was like, well, how about you? And he said, you know, I never directed before. And I said, yeah, but, like, a couple of years ago, I never wrote before, you know. And that's how it started, and just as an artist, and I go work in a theater, I felt like whatever I wrote, that he would understand it intellectually and emotionally.

VITALE: Labyrinth encourages members to learn different theater skills and uses its own people for every phase of a production. All members have a say in the work they do. Everyone works other jobs to make a living. They come here, says Philip Seymour Hoffman, to grow as artists.

Mr. HOFFMAN: It's very important to us that we keep this a company of artists and not a producing organization so much, you know. And so we want to produce our own stuff, like the play tonight is a play written company member for the company. And we try to keep that as a goal, you know, and so ultimately, at the end of the day, we'll have a body of work that is the Labyrinth's work.

VITALE: In the signature of that body of work is a focus on unsung characters, says New York Times' drama critic, Ben Brantley.

Mr. BEN BRANTLEY (Drama Critic, The New York Times): They tend to specialize in people who would be called blue-collar workers. Labyrinth often deals with -with not desperate lives, but less comfortable lives and people trying to find the center in them. And I think there's a hunger for that kind of careful examination of life that wouldn't be observed otherwise.

VITALE: And that includes lives of color, says John Patrick Shanley. Shanley won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his Broadway hit, "Doubt." Ten years ago, he heard about Labyrinth and asked how he could join. He was told, write a play. Since then, he's written three plays for the company.

Mr. JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY (Playwright; Pulitzer Prize Winner): I felt like it was a good match, that they were urban group, that they reflected the multiplicity of ethnicity in New York, and I wanted that, to work with people like that. Sometimes it's a danger with theater that if it just gets too white, and I don't like that.

VITALE: Like its multi-cultural membership, Labyrinth productions often focus on themes of community. "Jack Goes Boating" is about a group of dysfunctional friends who still managed to offer each other support.

(Soundbite of stage play, "Jack Goes Boating")

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jack) Maybe I don't know - dinner, when you're better, make it a big feast, just this have too much of everything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLE: (As Connie) (unintelligible) doing that for me.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jack) Well, I hope you're a good eater.

Ms. COLE: (As Connie) No one has ever cooked for me before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLE: (As Connie) No one has before.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jack) Well, cooking...

Ms. COLE: (As Connie) No one has ever (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jack) Yeah. I met, you know, maybe - no one else ever cooked for you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLE: (As Connie) It's a lovely (unintelligible).

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jack): Yeah...

Mr. STEPHEN ADLEY GUIRGIS (Playwright): I You know, we grow together, we fight, we have sex, we break up, we stay together, then we make work.

VITALE: Playwright Stephen Adley Guirgis says like Labyrinth's forerunners, the Group Theater in the 1930s and the Moscow Art Theater before it, good art comes out of a good support group.

Mr. GUIRGIS: I would say that the blessing of my life is finding this family. It really is a family. It's sounds kind of corny, but it's true, because what we didn't realize until we started getting into it is that it's not like this everywhere, you know, and it's really great to go in with an army.

VITALE: An army that's grown to 96-foot soldiers who still do everything, from writing to lighting to painting sets 15 years and 45 productions after their first experiments.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

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