Over a recent lunch, genial playwright Donald Margulies was wondering why it took so many years to get a foothold in Chicago.
Margulies, who seemed genuinely quizzical on the subject, had a point. With the exception of a (to my mind) quotidian 2003 Goodman Theatre production of his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Dinner With Friends," his plays have not enjoyed a lot of prominence in this theater-loving city, even though Margulies' star has risen greatly over the past decade as he moved from Louisville, Ky., to New York , where it continues to rise.
It's hard to know precisely why some writers catch a wave here more easily than others. But Margulies, a prolific, articulate and compassionate playwright, had no complaints whatsoever about the current Steppenwolf Theatre production of "Time Stands Still," which stars Sally Murphy and is playing through May 13 under Austin Pendleton's decidedly Chekhovian direction. On the contrary, he clearly was thrilled.
This show is an example of a best-case Chicago scenario for a playwright with a fairly recent off-Broadway hit.
The nearly four-month run in the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre is long enough to be comparable to a Broadway stand, which is good for the writer, visitors to town looking for a classy night out and for actors in need of steady employment. And in this instance, Pendleton also put his distinctive stamp on the show, casting a formidable ensemble and emphasizing the empathetic nature of the characters and, in essence, showing Margulies another side of his very fine play. No wonder the scribe was smiling over his sandwich.
A similar scenario unfolded with Chuck Smith's stellar production of David Mamet's "Race," although in that instance the Goodman production closed much more quickly, despite the SRO signs and huge, unmet demand for tickets.
In an ideal state of affairs, especially for the Chicago actors and technicians working on that show, a commercial producer would have immediately transferred that production to another venue in the city, since the Goodman was kicking it out to go wading into the controversial waters of Calixto Bieito's "Camino Real."
But then commercial producing on that level in Chicago is not in a healthy state. Most commercial producers coming to town these days are creating what you might call niche productions.
There are two such shows on the way in coming weeks. And all you have to do is look at the title to know for whom they are intended.
In April, the Royal George Theatre will be home to "Motherhood: The Musical," a show that follows three kinds of mothers. In June, "Girl's Night: The Musical," a show that follows five kinds of women, will arrive at a Division Street bar (it's a party show, in case the title didn't make that clear) called Detention Chicago. Both are a far cry from the work of Margulies.
The recently announced Goodman, Steppenwolf and Lookingglass 2012-13 seasons, together, take care of pretty much all the prominent new plays that emerged on Broadway in the last year.
The Goodman will produce Jon Robin Baitz's juicy "Other Desert Cities"; Lookingglass (in a departure from its usual practice) will stage Rajiv Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo"; and Steppenwolf will produce both a new production of David Lindsay-Abaire's superb "Good People" (a story of working class Boston folks that reminded me of Steppenwolf even before the first act had finished) and a restaging (with a different cast) of Anna Shapiro's shrewdly directed production of Stephen Adly Guirgis' "The M----------- With the Hat."
Given that such important plays — once the mainstay of the road — are, frustratingly, no longer perceived as viable touring properties is a good thing for Chicago audiences. Especially if the "Other Desert Cities" and "Good People" productions coming next year turn out anything like "Dinner With Friends" and "Race," although Daniel J. Sullivan's Broadway production of "Good People" will be a formidable bar for director K. Todd Freeman to match.
It doesn't always work out that way; often seasons here get full without such plays.
I'm all for all these theaters originating new works by, say, Bruce Norris, Rebecca Gilman or even Rick Bayless, and taking them beyond Chicago. But we also need to see decent productions of the best contemporary dramas that don't happen to be written by writers with deep tentacles in Chicago ... such as Margulies, of whom we need to see a great deal more.
'Time Stands Still'
When: Through May 13
Where: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $55 & $75; steppenwolf.orgCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times