How producer Cheryl Crawford found a Southern comedy for Broadway

``Everybody's on the lookout for good plays in regional theaters to bring to New York,'' says producer Cheryl Crawford in commenting on ``So Long on Lonely Street,'' which opens in New York tonight. ``The situation in New York is pretty desperate -- in quality and numbers. Very little is coming in. I don't know who they'll even put up for the Tonys this year. I don't think there's been enough good, interesting productions for one thing. And secondly, I think the prices are out of order.''

This dire assessment may sound like a familiar refrain, but it comes from one of the most respected veterans of the theater world. During some 55 illustrious years, Miss Crawford has not only produced many memorable shows, but had a hand in establishing more than one theatrical milestone -- co-founding the Group Theatre and the Actors' Studio among other achievements.

Unlike many theatrical doomsayers, Miss Crawford is trying to do something about the problem -- and in a very practical way. When ``So Long on Lonely Street'' opens, several things about the production will be of special interest.

Its origins, for instance. The play was discovered by Miss Crawford and her partners at Atlanta's respected Alliance Theatre, where it opened the 1985-86 season in the main house after making a hit last season in the smaller Alliance Studio Theatre.

``The earliest time I heard about it,'' Miss Crawford recounted by phone from New York, ``was in an issue of [the show-business weekly] Variety last spring. It sounded so interesting to me that I sent for the play, which I read and liked, and then went down to see it with my partners. I always read the Variety reviews of whatever goes on in the regional theaters. But this is the only one that propelled me to get on a plane and get there. We liked it even more after seeing it . . . .''

What it had, in Miss Crawford's admittedly partisan opinion, was ``something that happens very rarely in the New York theater today: real, true characters, and a story that has some suspense in it, so you don't always know what is going to happen next.'' Although she recast some of it, few changes had to be made.

``It had already been through a series of trials,'' she points out. ``First they had a reading down there. Then they had a performance in a very small theater. The results of that were so pleasing to all who saw it that they decided they would open their fall season with the play in the big theater. And that's when I saw it, when it had gone through these three metamorphoses. I didn't see it until after it opened in the Alliance. It was in very good shape and the playwright evidently did make considerable changes during that process.''

They brought ``So Long on Lonely Street'' to the Boston area, but not to one of the standard urban pre-Broadway theaters. In what could be a harbinger of shifting theatrical geography, it played the Nickerson Theatre, a delightful 360-seat house in the suburban town of Norwell. The play -- which I saw there -- is an effective comedy with a powerful story line about a Southern family embroiled in controversy over a will. If this sounds familiar, it's because the plot leans heavily on the Southern Gothic tradition. But at the same time it revives certain neglected virtues of structure, suspense, and honest laughs. The story also fairly drips with Southern Gothic decadence, but it's purveyed with such brisk good humor that you never really take its darker side to heart. The laughs and the unflagging story line are its main assets.

Trying out in the suburbs is unusual, says Miss Crawford, ``but we did it purposely. When we heard about this theater, we found it had about 12,000 subscribers, and since we were going up there in the middle of winter, we decided it would be much safer to go where we were totally protected. Boston would have cost a great deal more.''

In New York ``So Long on Lonely Street'' will open at the Jack Lawrence Theatre, which seats about 500. That's small for a Broadway theater (which it technically is) but larger than the Nickerson. New York theaters like the Jack Lawrence are sometimes called ``middle houses,'' indicating their status between Broadway and Off Broadway.

As she looks back across her career, Miss Crawford turns once again to the question of what's missing in the New York theater today. ``I think, in the first place, a good story is missing. I read a lot of plays that have quite good writing, but I want to stop after about the first 25 pages because it doesn't absorb me.'' She hasn't seen any plays lately that she wishes she'd produced.

Whether ``So Long on Lonely Street'' makes a difference in New York remains to be seen, but it's nice to know that someone of Miss Crawford's stature is trying.

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