‘Desert Cities’: end of touring benefits regional theaters

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otherdesertcities1Yesterday, to prepare for a feature on a Connecticut production of “Time Stands Still,” I had a fascinating interview/conversation with the playwright Donald Margulies.

Margulies has done well as a theater writer — a Pulitzer for “Dinner with Friends” (which is now being revived in New York City) and other well-received plays, spanning 30 years, such as “Sight Unseen” and “Collected Stories” — but we both bemoaned the decline of the serious play as a major Broadway attraction and the growing difficulty of finding suitable off Broadway spaces for the commercial transfer of plays that are well reviewed during limited runs at non-profits like Primary Stages and Playwrights Horizons.

Margulies scored a smash with a revival of “The Model Apartment” at Primary Stages last year — fueled by a New York Times review that called it his “masterwork” — but there was no small commercial theater available for a move.

Another change in the theater scene — that we didn’t talk about — is the end of national touring companies for important plays. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, a hit play in New York would eventually tour the country, sometimes with the same stars, sometimes with replacements ( I still remember being bowled over as kid in Philly by Nancy Kelly in Neil Simon’s “The Gingerbread Lady” and Margaret Leighton in Mike Nichols’ hit revival of “The Little Foxes”).otherdesertcities2

The last major national tour of a play was “Doubt” nearly a decade ago and that was only because the original star Cherry Jones wanted to experience that old-time theater tradition.

The road’s loss has been regional theaters’ gain, however. Last weekend in Philly I caught the Walnut Street Theater’s strong production of Jon Robin Baitz’s 2011 Broadway hit “Other Desert Cities” with a wonderful company of Philadelphia-based professional actors including Susan Wilder (above, center) as the right wing ex-Hollywood screen writer Polly Wyeth (a role played in New York by Stockard Channing) and Greg Wood (above, left) as Polly’s husband, Lyman, a former movie star who turned to politics in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s rise to power (the part played in New York by Stacy Keach).

It was exciting to see how strong Baitz’s play is without the starry cast that helped to sell tickets in New York.

The playwright’s view of the conflict between the GOP stalwart parents and their troubled, leftist daughter Brooke (the terrific Krista Apple, below with Matteo Scammell) was just as moving and as provocative at the Walnut as it was in New York. In some ways, “Other Desert Cities” seemed more realistic without the presence of well-known actors.

With the collapse of touring, the Walnut Street Theatre has built itself into a regional powerhouse with close to 40,000 subscribers and a six show season in which every play or musical has a two-month run. Rather than have a touring show come through town with New York-based actors, the collapse of the road has meant more work for more actors around the country.

If you should happen to be in the Philadelphia area between now and March 2, a visit to the Walnut Street Theatre is highly recommended.

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Joe Meyers

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