Acclaimed Director Jack O’Brien has lived and breathed theater for over five decades. At 80 years old, he holds three Tony Awards, four Drama Desk Awards and has been inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. He’s currently directing the world-premiere of Safe Space at Bay Street Theater, an intensely relevant and insightful play written by Alan Fox and starring Mercedes Ruehl, Sasha Diamond and Rodney Richardson.
While working at Julliard’s American Opera Center in the late 1970s, O’Brien was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put his name on the map. The Houston Grand Opera was working on the first-ever uncut version of Porgy and Bess and was determined to get Harold Prince to direct it. Unfortunately, Prince was otherwise engaged, so John DeMain, Houston’s Music Director, recommended his still-green friend O’Brien for the job. The play was a massive success, earning Tony and Drama Desk nominations in 1977, and officially launching O’Brien’s career.
From 1981 to 2007, O’Brien directed many award-winning productions—including The Invention of Love, Hairspray, Henry IV and The Coast of Utopia—and served as Artistic Director for San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, which earned the Regional Theatre Tony Award in 1983. He continued to direct Broadway plays and musicals nearly every year, most recently Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, which opened in April 2019. “I’ve sort of outlived my due date by several decades, and they’re still hiring me,” he jokes. “I’m as astonished as anybody!”
While O’Brien is certainly proud of his long list of Broadway hits leading to his 2007 induction into the Theater Hall of Fame, he remains incredibly humble when discussing the honor. “It’s a sort of asterisk that when your name goes on the wall of a building, it means that somebody else finds your contribution worthy of note,” he says. “When you look at the other people on the wall, they are then considered your peers, and there are people there that I blush to consider peers of mine. But I’m very proud that I’ve done enough work in New York to qualify for that singular award.”
O’Brien is hard at work on Bay Street Theater’s production of Safe Space, and he couldn’t be more excited about the piece. “It’s just extraordinary! This very young playwright has taken on an extremely dangerous assignment,” he says describing the political and racial issues discussed in the play. “I don’t know anybody [else] writing about the climate that exists in universities and colleges today.”
The story is set at an elite university where a well-loved African-American professor is facing accusations of racism from an Asian student. The play explores political correctness, ethics and identity politics as the Jewish head of the school chooses how to best settle the dicey situation. “I want [the audience] to be a little terrified at the questions that are being asked and the consequences of those questions, because these are things that we don’t comfortably face,” O’Brien admits. “I’m trying to open intellectual veins, as it were, and I want the play to speak for itself, because I think it’s wise and witty and articulate.”
Ultimately, O’Brien doesn’t know how the audience will react to the play, as is the case with all world premieres, but he thoroughly enjoys the suspense leading up to opening night on Saturday, June 29. “[Directing a premiere play] is the scariest and ultimately the most rewarding thing you can do in the theater,” he remarks. Given Bay Street’s long track record of rave productions and the theater’s last triumphant world premiere, The Prompter, Safe Space is likely to be yet another can’t-miss summer hit.
Previews for Safe Space run June 25–28 at Bay Street Theater (1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor), and the show runs through July 21. Visit baystreet.org or call 631-725-9500 for tickets.