The Public Theater unveils a sleek new NYC home

NEW YORK -- The Public Theater unveiled its four-year, $40 million face-lift on Monday with some Shakespeare, some hippies and some veteran stage stars including Vanessa Redgrave, Liev Schreiber and Mandy Patinkin.

The speakers, which included Mayor Michael Bloomberg, took turns reading snippets of Shakespeare verse and the 45-minute event ended when the recent revival cast of "Hair" serenaded the crowd with a rendition of "Let the Sun Shine In." The musical "Hair" was the first show produced in the building when the Public took it over in 1967.

The nonprofit's 158-year-old headquarters in Astor Place now has a new exterior, refurbished lobby, a new lounge, staircases, upgraded dressing rooms and expanded restrooms, which received the biggest applause from the guests at the ceremony.

"Have you gone to the bathroom here in the last 50 years? Then you know why it got a cheer," joked Patrick Willingham, the Public's executive director.

He said the new space will allow better artistic movement and hope sit becomes a town square: "This is a piazza, a gathering place in the center of downtown, a place where everyone can mingle."

Other celebrities in attendance included the playwrights Suzan Lori Parks and David Henry Hwang, the actors Jay O. Sanders and Colman Domingo, and designer David Rockwell, whose firm helped create the space.

All read inspirational lines from Shakespeare, including "You shall find a benefit in this change" from "Antony and Cleopatra" and "Merrily, merrily shall I live now" from "The Tempest."

The sleek new interior with a bar in the lobby's center and muted lighting is a welcome change from the four years of dust and hammering that engulfed the building. The Public insisted on presenting a full slate of shows over the four despite the ongoing renovations.

Of the $40 million price tag, more than half _ $28.5 million _ was kicked in by the city. Bloomberg, who noted that he will be looking for a job in 453 days, suggested that he might become a Shakespearian actor next. "The Public is a place built on the stuff that dreams are made of," he said.

Schreiber, a Public board member who quoted a line from "Hamlet," said he was moved by the outpouring of love for the Public. "The fact that we value that so much in this city, still makes me want to cry," he said.

Patinkin has very personal ties to the building: In addition to meeting his wife at the Public, his grandfather arrived in New York from Poland and found help when the space housed an aid society.

"I can't believe where I began my theater career was the first place that my grandfather, who brought the Patinkin family to America, came to have a meal," he actor said. "For me, it's a home and a temple."

The rededication kicks off eight weeks of events _ including an open house and a block party _ and comes as the Public is also celebrating the 50th anniversary of its free Shakespeare in the Park program at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.

The event capped a busy week for off-Broadway theaters. Earlier, the Pearl Theatre had a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate moving into its new home near Times Square, while the Atlantic Theater Company reopened its main stage in Chelsea after an $8.3 million renovation.