A wave of new theater ideas hits an old Shore resort

Roy Steinberg, after successes in New York and Hollywood, is bringing energy and professionalism to Cape May Stage.

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CAPE MAY - On Tuesday, as the lunchtime sun finally lit Cape May and beachgoers began toting their chairs to the sand, the cool, dim interior of the theater at the edge of town was a hive of activity. The preview performance of Cape May Stage's Say Goodnight Gracie was a night away, and there were final director's notes to make, umpteen lighting cues to be refined.

No down-the-Shore summer languor at this resort-town professional theater. A new artistic director, a refurbished space, an expanded season, a fresh push for subscribers, and a bid to attract vacationers could lift Cape May Stage to a level it has never seen. Work lasted well into evening: three rehearsals, start to finish.

"Pardon me, but I feel like I'm sitting in the dark," said veteran actor Joel Rooks, halting the first-rehearsal action to question a failed lighting cue. Rooks is an old hand at playing George Burns in the affecting one-man reminiscence of the late comic's infatuation with Gracie Allen. He just ended nine weeks at Philadelphia's Society Hill Playhouse and by now probably could perform Rupert Holmes' script under heavy sedation. But this production, with a new director in a different house, requires tweaking.

The fact that Rooks is even here, at the corner of Lafayette and Bank Streets, says something about the Cape May Stage and its artistic director, Roy Steinberg, who arrived from Hollywood's soap-opera world only months ago. Rooks had no intention of playing Cape May until he called Steinberg, a stage colleague from the '70s and '80s, to wish him well in his move east and from TV back to theater.

Steinberg, in turn, suggested bringing Say Goodnight Gracie to Cape May after Rooks' Philly run, then set about acquiring rights and offered Rooks a solid deal. "I told him," says Steinberg, "I can't pay you a fortune. But you'll be in beautiful Cape May - and I'll throw in a bike." The rest of the story is - well, it runs through July 18, with Steinberg directing.

Steinberg's far-ranging connections already are bringing other theater artists and shows to Cape May Stage. Weeks ago, he started a cabaret series to fill otherwise dark theater nights and lure Shore crowds on late-night weekends after the final mainstage curtain call. Tina Sloan, for 26 years Guiding Light's nurse Lillian Raines, will perform a one-woman show Aug. 17, and Emmy winner James Reynolds (Days of Our Lives) will play a dozen characters in a one-nighter Sept. 6.

Brassy belter Mary Testa, a Philly native and Steinberg pal who just finished turning a minor role into a major moment in the Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls, arrives July 13 with Michael Starobin, singing his new music; he won a Tony a few weeks ago for orchestrating Next to Normal. Lynn Cohen (Sex and the City and the recent Off-Broadway hit Chasing Manet), Steinberg's friend of 30 years, will play in Social Security on the mainstage from late July through August. As for local content, a spoof on Cape May's history, tomorrow night, is sold out.

Cape May Stage has a contract with Actors' Equity, the union of professional actors and stage managers, and is one of two professional theaters in town; the East Lynne Theater Company, devoted to classic American plays, also has an Equity contract.

In Los Angeles last summer, with a fresh team coming in to oversee Days of Our Lives, Steinberg knew his eight-year gig as the show's director and producer was ending. "I never expected to go to California" in the first place, says the New York native. Then a friend sent him an e-mail about Cape May Stage's announcement that it needed an artistic director.

"The subject line of the e-mail said, 'This sounds like you,' " he recalls. "You know how easy it is to respond by e-mail - I sent my resume." A few phone calls later, he was on his way for a visit.

"When I met everybody here and saw the place, and met the board - so many interesting people, and with all kinds of diversity, a community that was supporting the theater - I thought it was remarkable. These are people who could live anywhere they want, and they do. There's something about this place that attracts interesting, sophisticated people. The theater has no debt, which is extraordinary in this time. I thought we could really build something here."

Steinberg saw a completely renovated 102-seat theater in an airy 19th-century church building that was deconsecrated in the mid-1950s to become a community center, then a visitor center and home to the theater, which used to put up folding chairs for shows.

A National Historic Landmark, it is now officially the Robert Shackleton Playhouse of Cape May Stage, restored after a 2004 theater campaign that made it state-of-the-art. "The first thing I noticed inside - the acoustics," says Steinberg. "Somebody sneezes backstage, you can hear it in the balcony."

The theater already had audience enticements - flexible subscriptions at about 30 percent off the $35 ticket price with access to all shows, or bunching tickets together to bring friends to shows. Pay-what-you-will nights pop up, and in a town with a substantial senior year-round population, special rates are a draw.

One of the most attractive deals partners the theater with 10 notable restaurants, mining the town's culinary cache - dinner and a show, often at substantial savings on both.

This year, Cape May Stage, operating on a $460,000 budget to produce monthlong runs from May through December, is trying to boost the subscriptions it began selling only three years ago; the number now stands at 200.

Steinberg, 58, a Yale drama school graduate, worked in the theater for more than two decades, much of that time as an actor and director "in every state in the union." He was long associated with New York's fabled Circle Rep, which nurtured actors, playwrights, and new works for 27 years. As a director, he once had four plays running Off-Broadway simultaneously.

An executive of broadcasting's marathon runner, Guiding Light, saw a Steinberg-directed Circle Rep production in the late '80s and invited him to direct on the show, which ends its stint in September after 57 years. "I said, 'I don't know how!' " he recalls. "So I observed and leapt in."

He became a Guiding Light producer for a decade, then moved as a director to One Life to Live for a short time before teaching at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

"Though I loved the people, it was not something I wanted to do the rest of my life," he says of college teaching. He wound up in Los Angeles at Days of Our Lives.

Now he has moved from L.A.'s Studio City to a rental near the Coast Guard station in Cape May with his wife, Marlena Lustik, who has acted and danced on Broadway and is writing two books - a novel about her time at Manhattan's Copacabana and an acting guide for dancers. Their daughter, Alexa, 18, is a student at New Jersey's Montclair State University.

Steinberg has met with several regional artistic directors - "the people in Philadelphia have been so generous," he says - to familiarize himself with the talent pool and get a feel for the scene. Like the heads of many Philadelphia companies, he's looking to produce new work as part of his season "because that's what I love working on. And for a community, new work is another opportunity to engage a person's intellect."

In the nation's oldest seaside resort, he talks about "the idea of doing something new and really discovering it" on the stage. "That's what makes me feel alive and excited."


Cape May Stage is at the corner of Lafayette and Bank Streets in Cape May. Information: 609-884-1341 or www.capemaystage.com.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http:// go.philly.com/howardshapiro.