Charles Busch will play Auntie Mamethis summer at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harborand the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine(Photo © Alex Kirzhner)
Charles Busch will play Auntie Mame
this summer at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor
and the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine
(Photo © Alex Kirzhner)
Straw hat! Once, the term summoned images of glamorous stars moonlighting for kicks in the sticks. The genre has been somewhat degraded over the past few decades, but that's certainly not to say that all summer stock is schlock: At several sylvan sites within weekending distance of New York, seasonal companies produce work of caliber high enough to please city sophisticates. Here are some getaway-worthy highlights.

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THE FERTILE HUDSON VALLEY

The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival has been mounting the Bard's canon on the front lawn of the grand Federal-era Boscobel estate in Garrison (50 miles north of Manhattan) since 1988, gradually earning an annual audience of over 25,000 and praise from such critics as Ben Brantley of The New York Times. This summer's slate consists of Macbeth (June 16-August 7) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (July 21-September 5). Expect spare but astute productions in which the text is allowed to shine unencumbered.

Come summer, New York Stage and Film moves its theater lab activities up to Vassar's bucolic campus in Poughkeepsie. Thousands of important emerging voices have been involved in the aptly named Powerhouse Program over the past two decades -- names like Baitz, Henley, Rebeck, Shanley, and Silver. Marquee actors flock here as well. On the mainstage this summer is the U.S. premiere of Marta Goes's A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop (June 23-July 3): Amy Irving portrays the Vassar-educated poet who in 1952 moved to Brazil with her lover Lota de Macedo Soares, with ultimately tragic consequences. In the new Martel Theater, June 25-27, actor/director Bill Pullman tries out his multimedia piece Expedition 6, about three astronauts stranded in space after the Columbia debacle. Next up are two musical workshops: In the world-premiering Nerds (July 15-18), Jordan Allen-Dutton and Erik Weiner -- the young phenoms who created the captivating Bomb-itty of Errors as NYU students in 2002 -- take on two garage hacker-geniuses who make it big. Then, July 29-August 1, John Carrafa (Urinetown) directs Good Vibrations, a Beach Boys hommage with book by Richard Dresser. Four more weekend workshops and 10 staged readings round out the program. The Reading Festival scheduled for July 23-35 is especially noteworthy in that the lineup includes The Argument by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, and Fran's Bed by James Lapine. If all of that's not enticement enough, the program's apprentices mount three free outdoor shows in repertory, July 14-25; this year, they're doing Romeo and Juliet, Coriolanus, and Fanny Kemble (a play adapted from the actress-activist's journals).

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HUNKERING DOWN IN THE HAMPTONS

Having battled your way along the LIE, isn't it nice to know that you don't have to backtrack for a culture fix? Founded in 1991 by actors Sybil Christopher (famously the ex-wife of Richard Burton and mother of Kate), Emma Walton (daughter of Julie Andrews) and her husband Stephen Hamilton, Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor is an incubator of impressive pedigree. Successful launches to date include Love, Janis, and Full Gallop. Place your bets to see which of the following turn out to have legs: Limonade Tous les Jours, a Parisian romance by Charles L. Mee, directed by Zoe Caldwell and starring Alan Alda (May 25-June 6); Rough Crossing, Tom Stoppard's 1984 Molnar adaptation, with a stellar cast including Dylan Baker, Christine Ebersole, Richard Kind, and Tony Roberts (June 15-July 4); Charles Busch in the title role of Auntie Mame (July 13-August 1, fresh from a run at the venerable Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine, June 28-July 10); and the incantatory musical Once on This Island by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (August 10-September 5).

The theater wing of the 69-year old Guild Hall Cultural Center in East Hampton is dedicated to pushing the envelope while building community; hence the "Naked Stage" series of readings held in the 381-seat John Drew Theater, a biweekly event culminating in the 12-play "Naked Stage Marathon," May 28-30 and June 4-6. Play readings will continue into the summer -- notably, Mercedes Ruehl portraying colorful collector Peggy Guggenheim in Lanie Robertson's Woman Under Glass (June 12); Tony Walton directing Eve Sawyer's The Gleam, about the tricky nexus of arts and corporate support (July 25); and Jen LeRoy's Missing Footage, about a prima ballerina approaching the twilight of her career (August 8). Also on tap are Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach in A.R. Gurney's Love Letters (September 4) and Brian Murray in Mirabeaux's Business Is Business (September 5). Cabaret is plentiful, too -- not only one-night gigs by Christine Andreas (July 17), Mary Cleere Harran (July 31), Karen Akers (September 2), and Rita Gardner (September 3) but also 2want2: The New Bohemia, a burlesque-tinged revue fresh from the fleshpots of Gotham (August 6-7), and the star-studded Second Annual Hamptons Cabaret Convention (August 19-22). Throw in concert presentations of two new musicals: Judith Steir's Only a Kingdom (July 9-11), about the Duke of Wales mid-abdication, and Green Gables (July 23-25), based on the L.M. Montgomery children's classic.

Finally, for lovers of al fresco theater, the Hampton Shakespeare Festival will be putting on The Comedy of Errors at Theodore Roosevelt County Park, three miles east of Montauk, July 28-August 20.

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Get outta town!
Get outta town!
BASKING IN THE BERKSHIRES

Who needs an excuse to head to these hills? But as long as you're in the vicinity, you might as well check out some exceptional theater. Though it occupies a humble high school, Barrington Stage Company in Sheffield has gained a high profile over the past decade, especially for its polished, spirited musicals. Newsworthy this summer is the July 8-August 1 world premiere engagement of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, with music and lyrics by William Finn of Falsettos fame. Expect to laugh and cringe as six contenders -- adults playing children -- tackle the cutthroat world of competitive spelling. The other Stage II production is Lee Blessing's Thief River (August 5-15), a time-shifting gay love story set in Minnesota from 1948 to 2001. On the main stage are Sweet Charity (July 8-August 1); the world premiere of a drama about a hotly contested heart transplant, The God Committee, by Mark St. Germain (July 22-August 7); and Cyrano de Bergerac (August 12-28), adapted and directed by BSC artistic director Julianne Boyd.

Occupying a beautiful Stanford White-designed 1888 casino in Stockbridge, the Berkshire Theatre Festival is commencing its 76th season and shows no signs of growing stodgy. The main stage usually supports classics, which it will do this summer in the case of Heartbreak House (July 13-24); The Miracle Worker, by local resident William Gibson (July 27-August 14); and The Misanthrope in Richard Wilbur's brilliant translation (August 17-September 4). However, in conjunction with the Actors Theatre of Louisville, BTF kicks off its season June 2-July 10 with Pearl Cleage's wrenching 1995 drama Blues for an Alabama Sky, set amid the Harlem Renaissance; it will be directed by ATL associate director Timothy Douglas, who pulled off a fabulous Assassins last summer. The barn-like Unicorn Theatre, added in the '60s, typically houses more adventurous fare. This year's lineup starts with the 1996 Obie-award winning Adam Guettel-Tina Landau musical Floyd Collins (June 9-July 3); a world premiere musical titled Siddhartha: A Jungian Fantasy, adapted by director Eric Hill (July 7-31); Kathy Levin Shapiro's Eugene's Home (August 4-21), about a wheelchair-bound man with cerebral palsy who's swept up by love; and It Goes Without Saying (August 24-September 4), a mime memoir by Marceau acolyte Bill Bowers.

Having squatted precariously and impecuniously at The Mount, Edith Wharton's semi-restored Lenox estate, for 22 years, Shakespeare & Company now has more space than it knows what to do with: In 2000, the group acquired a 63-acre campus boasting some 23 buildings. Plans are in place to build yet another, an Elizabethan theater to be called the Rose: Romeo and Juliet will unfurl within its tented footprint from July 8 through August 29. Meanwhile, the scaffold-and-canvas Founders' Theatre, an arena space creatively carved from a former gym, hosts three productions: As You Like It (June 18-August 29); The Comedy of Errors (August 4-September 2); and Othello (September 3-5). In the latter, billed as a Bare Bard (low-tech) production, Jonathan Epstein and John Douglas Thompson will take turns playing Othello and Iago. Non-Bard chamber plays occupy the Spring Lawn Theatre, the former salon of a grand 1904 cottage: Peter Shaffer's Lettice and Lovage, featuring Shakespeare & Company founder Tina Packer (July 2-September 5); Full Gallop, by Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson, with Annette Miller soloing as Diana Vreeland (July 8-September 5); and Eileen Atkins in Vita & Virginia, reprised from last summer (September 24-October 24.)

This is a banner year for the prestigious Williamstown Theatre Festival: the big 5-0 anniversary. A flashback fundraiser is scheduled for August 28. With big stars, dinner, and fireworks thrown in, it sounds like a steal at $250. Otherwise, the 11-week season consists as usual of crowd-pleasers on the 520-seat Main Stage and fringier stuff on the 96-seat Nikos Stage (named for founding director Nikos Psacharopoulos) plus family-friendly free theater on Buxton Field. The Main Stage will warm up June 24-July 10 with a revue titled Cabaret & Main that will feature such revolving cast members as James Naughton and Bill Irwin, then will segué into A Midsummer Night's Dream as envisioned by Nicholas Martin (July 14-25). Next comes Noël Coward's Design for Living with Campbell Scott and Steven Weber (July 28-August 8) and The Cherry Orchard as directed by Michael Greif (August 11-22). The Nikos's all-new lineup starts with Water's Edge (June 23-July 4), Theresa Rebeck's portrait of an estranged, resentful wife, to be played by Kate Burton. The title character of Rodney's Wife (July 7-18), written and directed by Richard Nelson, tags along to Rome in 1962 as her husband, an American actor, makes the first spaghetti western. R Shomon (July 21-August 1), drawn from short stories by Ryonosuke Akutawaga, gives Michael John LaChiusa the chance to wrap a complex score around issues of reality and illusion; Audra McDonald stars. And in Dedication or the Stuff of Dreams (August 11-22), Terrence McNally looks on compassionately as the Nuncles, who operate a children's theater in a mall, contemplate an upgrade to a vaudeville palace.

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CAPE TOWNS

For a while, it looked as if the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts -- a 1927 showplace that jump-started the careers of such stars as Bette Davis and Henry Fonda -- was going the way of many of its straw hat peers and descending into recycled mediocrity. Though the theater's fare does tend toward the bourgeois, the talent is top-notch and you won't regret an evening spent here. This summer's bill meanders safely along the middle of the road (I Do! I Do!, Noises Off, On Your Toes, Inherit the Wind, And the World Goes Round) before detouring delightfully with Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep, August 30 - September 11.

"Driver, will we ever get to Penn Station?"
"Driver, will we ever get to Penn Station?"
For 20 years now, more adventurous theatergoers have found an oasis in the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre, housed in a shabby building near the town pier. Plans are afoot to build a worthy repository but, meanwhile, fans continue to crowd the 90-seat black-box space for gripping productions. On offer this summer are the world premiere of co-artistic director Gip Hoppe's Cuckooland (May 26-June 26), a comedy that takes wing from Aristophanes' The Birds; the stereotype-challenging, Obie-winning solo performance piece Peggy Shaw: To My Chagrin (June 30-July 24); Glitterati, John Kuntz's chameleonic, one-man take on the hazards of literary vanity (July 5-August 31); John Kolvenbach's Gizmo Love (July 29-September 4), which sounds as if it might have borrowed a page or two from True West; Jeffrey Sweet's Immoral Imperatives (September 9-25), about a Florida Keys retiree willing to cut his younger wife some sexual slack; and Private Jokes, Public Places (September 30-October 24), Oren Safdie's satire about the exigencies of modern architecture.

In an act of community-minded largesse, WHAT has entered into a co-venture with TheaterMania.com to launch CapeTix.com, designed -- in the words of WHAT's producing artistic director, Jeff Zinn -- to offer one-stop shopping for the many performing arts venues scattered about this long arm of sand. Sure to be among the hottest tickets are those for the opening of the new Provincetown Repertory Theatre venue at a former garage in the heart of town. As the birthplace of American avant-garde theater -- a young itinerant named Eugene O'Neill enjoyed his first production at a fish shack there in 1916 -- P-Town has languished too long without a proper facility. Now, thanks to local promoters like Norris Church (wife of Norman), it will have a fine one. Though the building will also harbor the community-based Provincetown Theatre Company, PRT's main focus will be to build a resident professional company. The season starts with a gallimaufry of a fund-raiser directed by Phyllis Newman: The Direct Line Play (June 25-26), a pastiche assembled from new contributions by 32 well-known contemporary playwrights. A later benefit sounds perfectly suited to the milieu: a reading of Valley of the Dolls (August 24) featuring such local celebs as author Michael Cunningham and drag queen Varla Jean Merman. Ms. Merman will additionally star in yet another Cape presentation of The Mystery of Irma Vep, September 15-26. Also on view will be Douglas Carter Beane's As Bees in Honey Drown (July 14-25) and the season will end with an as yet inchoate project overseen by André Gregory (October 20-November 7).