Regional theater perks up Broadway. Visiting playmakers reflect a lively professionalism beyond the Hudson

WINNING the 1985 Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award ``for continued excellence by a regional theater'' earned a new round of applause for Chicago's much-honored Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By extension, the accolade also said something about the role the institutional theater has come to play on a stage that stretches from Maine to California and from Alaska to Texas. New Yorkers have been witnessing the trend in a variety of entertainments by visiting playmakers. ``Big River'' came to Broadway from the American Repertory Theater of Cambridge, Mass., via the La Jolla (Calif.) Playhouse. ``Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'' and ``Faulkner's Bicycle'' originated at the Yale Repertory Theatre of New Haven, Conn. The Seattle Repertory Theatre premi`ered ``The Ballad of Baby Doe'' and ``I'm Not Rappaport.'' Other examples would include ``Dames at Sea'' from the Asolo State Theater of Florida, ``Quilters'' from the Denver Centre Theatre Company, ``Requiem for a Heavyweight'' from New Haven's Long Wharf, ``Hurlyburly'' from Chicago's Goodman, and ``Orphans'' from the aforementioned Steppenwolf.

Steppenwolf's ``continued excellence'' has enriched New York stages for several seasons. The incursions began in 1982, when Gary Sinise and John Malkovich rocked the Off Broadway scene with their revival of Sam Shepard's ``True West,'' staged by Mr. Sinise. In 1983, the Chicagoans relighted the long dark Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center with a glowing production of C. P. Taylor's ``And a Nightingale Sang.'' Versatile Steppenwolf actress Joan Allen, who gave an exquisite performanc e in that British World War II drama, more recently exercised her comic talents as Bourgeois Bette in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Christopher Durang's ``The Marriage of Bette and Boo.''

In 1984, Steppenwolf and New York's Circle Repertory Company joined forces for an outstanding revival of Lanford Wilson's early ``Balm in Gilead,'' guided by Mr. Malkovich. Steppenwolf's latest Manhattan ventures have included Lyle Kessler's ``Orphans,'' directed by Mr. Sinise, and Mr. Malkovich's airy staging of the Shavian ``Arms and the Man,'' with a troupe that includes Mr. Malkovich, who replaced Kevin Kline as Bluntschli when Mr. Kline left the cast, and Glenne Headly (Mrs. Malkovich). Steppenwolf

is preserving its Chicago franchise with a September revival of its 1978 production of Harold Pinter's ``The Caretaker.''

Chicago-in-New York isn't going to end with Steppenwolf forays. Gregory Mosher, artistic director of Chicago's Goodman Theatre, has recently taken over as director of Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater. In his 11-year association with the Goodman, Mr. Mosher has produced more than 90 plays, many of which he directed, including works by Tennessee Williams, David Mamet, John Guare, Elaine May, Edward Albee, and Athol Fugard. He hopes to relight the Newhouse this season and will reopen the Beaumont w hen he feels things are ready. With a strongly committed board of trustees headed by former Mayor John V. Lindsay and with veteran Bernard Gersten as executive producer, Mr. Mosher may yet prove to be the man who can rescue the Beaumont.

New York's latest experience of theater-beyond-the-Hudson has occurred with the three-play series of the American Theater Exchange at the Joyce Theater. The summer project got off to an affecting, if somewhat wobbly, start with the Yale Repertory Company's production of ``Faulkner's Bicycle,'' a dark play with Southern Gothic overtones by promising Canadian newcomer Heather McDonald. Houston's Alley Theatre provided the highlight of the season, demonstrating its comic range and adroitness in ``Season's Greetings,'' by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. For a finale, the Los Angeles Mark Taper Forum has struck the grimmest note in the series with ``In the Belly of the Beast,'' a starkly mounted compilation based on Jack Henry Abbott's letters from prison, the transcript of his murder trial, and other documentary material.

The point is not that these examples of regional playmaking were without flaw or of equal achievement and merit. More important, each production in its own way reflected the lively professionalism that has become standard in the country's widespread institutional theater. The generally high quality exhibited by these and the numerous importations mentioned earlier indicate the healthy state of this large segment of the American theater. Judged by their works, it seems clear that increased professionalis m has stimulated increased creative enterprise. The scope and artistry of their accomplishments are as widespread as the theatrical landscape itself.

While New York is still the theater capital of the United States, the domain of professional performance has long since become nationwide. Hence the urgency of a successful conclusion to the protracted negotiations between Actors' Equity Association and representatives of the League of Resident Theatres, an umbrella group of 77 companies. (An additional 16 independent troupes operate under LORT contracts.) Equity has raised the possibility of a strike unless a new agreement is reached when the present o ne expires Sept. 1. It is a pertinent fact that for some years LORT companies have given actors more weeks of work annually than both Broadway and the commercial touring theater combined.

A spot check of New York theater programs dramatized the role of the institutional theater in the employment and development of talent. Of approximately 100 program biographies surveyed for this report, more than two-thirds of the players listed regional theater appearances among their credits. The opportunities thus offered for polishing skills may help account for the current high level of American acting. The result for playgoers can be the dynamic excitement of performances ranging from the gritty g usto of a Steppenwolf ``Orphans'' to the lyrically soaring humanity of a ``Big River,'' or the fresh classicism of the Acting Company's ``A New Way to Pay Old Debts.''

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