The financially troubled Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, which failed to lure potential buyers at a foreclosure auction last month, is now a hot property.
At least four interested parties have come forward, with the goal of keeping the historic theater from going dark forever.
"It's exciting," said Sharyn Keiser, president of the New Hope Borough Council. "We want to see the playhouse and its rich history continue, and we'll support whoever it is who purchases it."
A deal to buy the 450-seat theater could be completed within two months, said Janet Nitka, senior vice president of Stonebridge Bank, the West Chester-based mortgage holder of the property. The bank, which recently took possession from longtime owner Ralph Miller, has set an asking price of $2.79 million.
Nitka declined to identify the potential buyers, citing confidentiality agreements. Each of the four is an arts-related group or an existing theater company, she said. All say they intend to keep the venue a playhouse and open by the summer, Nitka said.
Two of the parties have announced their intent to buy the battered venue, which was founded by a group of artists and theater enthusiasts including playwright Moss Hart.
One is led by W. Paul Beckwith, a board member of New Hope Arts, a nonprofit that supports the arts. He said two private foundations had committed to financing the purchase through New Hope Arts, which would be the official owner.
Beckwith declined to identify the foundations, calling negotiations sensitive. He estimated it would take $8 million to $10 million to buy the theater, get it up and running, and undertake necessary maintenance and renovations.
Beckwith declined to say how much money his effort had amassed, only that "the money is there." A deal to buy the theater could be complete within two weeks, he said.
The group envisions a venue that would offer plays, concerts, opera, symphony concerts, stand-up comedy, and films. The playhouse also would be open for community projects, Beckwith said.
If his group succeeds, it plans to open with a production June 1, Beckwith said.
Another group eyeing a purchase is led by veteran Broadway producer Jed Bernstein and Doylestown resident Peggy McRae, who hope to buy the playhouse through a new nonprofit, the Bucks County Playhouse Conservancy.
The conservancy is patterning its effort after one spearheaded by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward that revived the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut.
The conservancy group plans an extensive renovation that would create multiple theater spaces. The venue would offer programming year-round; arts training and internships; live music; and space for local government, community, and school functions, said Bernstein, producer of the play Driving Miss Daisy, currently on Broadway.
Bernstein estimated that an initial investment of $3 million to $5 million would be needed to buy and renovate the building and establish an endowment.
The group is seeking grants and planning fund-raising events. If Stonebridge chooses the group, a short summer season is planned.
The two groups have spoken with each other and shared ideas, McRae and Beckwith said. The conservancy would be willing to work with the Beckwith group and any other group with similar goals, she said.
"We're hoping that all resources can come together," McRae said, adding that Bernstein's A-list contacts in the theater community were an invaluable asset.
Beckwith described the situation as "two independent efforts with the same vision" to save the theater. But he was clear that he ultimately wanted New Hope Arts to own the venue, arguing that the group's history, work, and connections in the community would be an advantage.