Last week, Suffolk University opened the Modern Theatre, the smallest in the row of theaters on Washington Street. In the new, gleaming white lobby, a picture makes clear why the original auditorium could not be saved: a hole in the ceiling helped hasten the Modern's transformation from elegant movie house to horror film. Before its restoration, it resembled the ruins of Detroit, all rot and spoiled grandeur.
The original Modern opened in 1913 on the site of what had been a carpet showroom. The theater, known then as the Mayflower, later fell on hard times — showing adult films in the '60s, and closing altogether in the early '80s. It sat unused until Suffolk University purchased it in 2008.
The university tore down and rebuilt the building, and removed, restored, then reapplied the original marble façade. The new auditorium has an ultra-modern slate-colored floor and extremely festive walls, painted red and green and gold in a perma-Christmas mural inspired by the theater's original curtain. The original four-story proscenium was lost to dorms. Consequently, the two-story auditorium seats fewer than 200.
"What do you do with a theater that only has 185 seats that's down the street from the Opera House and the Paramount?" asks Marilyn Plotkins, the chair of Suffolk's theater department and my tour guide last Tuesday. "The 92nd Street Y is a good model for us," she says, citing the Manhattan community center's emphasis on size-appropriate events.
Plotkins says the Modern won't try to compete with its gargantuan neighbors. Instead, the theater has shaped its programming with their proximity in mind. Discussions will begin early so as not to conflict with shows down the street. They're borrowing actors, too — Academy Award–winning actor F. Murray Abraham, of Amadeus fame, will be in town next year to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at the Cutler Majestic. During that time, he'll stage a reading of The Last Will at the Modern.
Other performances, says Plotkins, will also focus on language. The Modern has partnered with the Actor's Shakespeare Project and the Harvard Square–based film discussion series the DocYard. And they're bringing in celebrities, including Lewis Black, for what Plotkins calls Charlie Rose–style discussions with Suffolk faculty.
This discursive element makes the Modern's programming more closely resemble that of the Coolidge or the Brattle than the glitzy productions at the Paramount or the Opera House. "We have very different strengths," Plotkins says. "It's like a menu of performance."