René Buch, a Force in Spanish-Language Repertory Theater, Dies at 94


René Buch, a co-founder and the artistic director of Repertorio Español, a repertory theater in Manhattan devoted to presenting Spanish-language works in a city that was increasingly Spanish-speaking, died on April 19 at his home in Manhattan. He was 94.

Robert Federico, the theater’s executive producer, said the cause was respiratory failure.

Since 1968, Repertorio Español has reimagined Spanish classics and offered contemporary work by Latin and Latin American playwrights, always in Spanish, performed repertory-style — a rare phenomenon in this country. Maintaining a repertory theater, with a nearly permanent corps of actors performing a different work every night and at matinees, is a financial and artistic challenge.

But Mr. Buch was always passionate about the form. And he liked to say that the playwrights of the Spanish Golden Age — Cervantes et al. — should be as well known here as Shakespeare.

In the beginning, he kept the operation afloat with a day job as a Spanish-language copywriter at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, while his co-founder, Gilberto Zaldívar, who like Mr. Buch was born in Cuba, was an executive at Diners Club, the credit card company.

At Repertorio Español, Mr. Buch, along with Mr. Zaldívar, who died in 2009, and Mr. Federico, who joined the company in 1972, put on plays by Federico García Lorca and Pedro Calderón de la Barca; adapted novels by Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa; and presented new works by playwrights like Eduardo Machado, Carmen Rivera and Nilo Cruz, who in 2003 won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for “Anna in the Tropics,” which Mr. Buch adapted in Spanish for his troupe the next year.

The company’s home was the Gramercy Arts Theater, a 140-seat mid-19th-century wooden townhouse on East 27th Street — the city’s tiniest theater, The New York Times declared in 1915.

Mr. Cruz remembered hearing Mr. Buch speak when he was a student at Miami Dade College. (Mr. Buch had come to Miami to lecture at the Hispanic Theater Festival.) “He talked about rhythm on the stage, and not rushing the language. It stuck with me,” Mr. Cruz said in an interview. “His sensibility was very European in the sense that the mise-en-scène was important: just space and the actor in space. When he did ‘Anna,’ there were only three chairs.”

Mr. Buch’s signature was those lean sets. “He didn’t want the audience to be distracted by other things,” Mr. Federico said. “He was like a dance choreographer in that way.”

La Gringa,” Carmen Rivera’s play about a young New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent who finds herself an outsider when she visits her “homeland,” opened at Mr. Buch’s theater in 1996 and promptly won an Obie. Twenty-four years later, it is still there (or was, until the recent lockdown), the longest-running Spanish-language play Off Broadway.

Ms. Rivera said her collaboration with Mr. Buch, a compact man with a deep baritone, changed the way she conceived her work. “They say writers write, and directors interpret,” she said in an interview, “but he really delved into the play. He was a story excavator.”

The Cuban-born playwright Eduardo Machado, who came to the United States when he was 8 and who, like Mr. Cruz and Ms. Rivera, writes in English, said: “René taught me Spanish literature. He taught me where I really came from. He made me more Cuban.

“When he directed my play ‘The Modern Ladies of Guanabacoa,’” he added, “the actors were doing it like it was Chekhov. René said to them, ‘Why are you thinking before you speak? Cubans don’t do that.’”

René Buch was born on Dec. 19, 1925, in Santiago, Cuba. His father, Ernesto Buch, was a lawyer; his mother, Dolores Santos, was a homemaker and pianist.

He entered college at 15 — his father had altered his records to make him appear a year older, then the legal age for enrollment in Cuba, Mr. Federico said, so all of Mr. Buch’s documents, including his passport, retained the incorrect birth date. He received a doctorate in law from the University of Havana in 1948. Fidel Castro, Mr. Buch said, was there at the same time, and had a habit of wearing a gun and holster to class.

He thought he wanted to be an opera composer (his father had told him if he went to law school first, he could do anything he wanted afterward), but he fell in love with the theater, particularly repertory theater, when the French director Louis Jouvet took his company to Latin America and Cuba during World War II. At 20, Mr. Buch won a prize in a national playwriting competition.

Mr. Buch received an M.F.A. in playwriting from Yale in 1952 — though he chafed at what he called the school’s “academic theater” — and then moved to New York City, where he worked in journalism and advertising.

Mr. Buch’s brother, Ernesto Buch Jr., died in 2013. His partner, Erik Wensberg, an author and editor, died in 2010.

Mr. Buch and Mr. Wensberg — a founder, with Jane Jacobs, of the Committee to Save the West Village — lived in the same building, though not in the same apartment, on West Street; Mr. Buch had lived there since the 1950s. (The Times’s Craig Claiborne described Mr. Buch’s apartment there as “a very friendly corner of bedlam” when he visited in 1969 to write about Mr. Buch’s recipe for carne mechada, otherwise known as Cuban stuffed beef, a door-stopper of a meal.)

He moved to East 13th Street a decade ago after the city declared the West Street building uninhabitable, Mr. Federico said, taking along his enormous collection of classical music, mostly on vinyl, and his stereo equipment, and not much else.

Mr. Buch had macular degeneration and had to give up directing shortly after staging Lorca’s “Once Five Years Pass” in 2011. That same year, he won a lifetime achievement Obie; the next year he was awarded the Order of Isabella the Catholic by King Juan Carlos I of Spain, an honor that recognizes those whose work benefits the country.

“I am the luckiest man in the world,” Mr. Buch told Arthur Bartow, who included him in his book “The Director’s Voice: 21 Interviews,” published in 1988. “I’m doing exactly the work I want to do in exactly the way I want to do it, with the people I want to do it with. I think I’m going to have to pay for all this good fortune, sometime, somehow.”

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