Attorneys file memoranda to County Surrogate Court

NEW HAVEN — Two state attorneys general have intervened to halt efforts for directors of the New York-based Lucille Lortel Foundation to sell 18.2 acres of prime real estate in the exurbs of Connecticut. The land includes the historic White Barn Theater, an adjacent gallery and the late producer-philanthropist’s summer house on the Norwalk-Westport line.

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal filed memoranda to the New York County Surrogate Court that the self-proclaimed “Queen of Off Broadway” wanted the summer theater to continue and expressed those sentiments in her will. But the queen is dead and a good chunk of the kingdom is poised for dismantling.

The directors of the foundation — whose holdings include the Lucille Lortel Theater in New York — say Lortel’s 1997 will does not obligate them to continue operations at the Connecticut theater. They now want to sell the property.

The White Barn goes back to the 1940s, when Lortel created an enclave for artists to present new works, U.S. premieres and revivals at her renovated two-story, 148-seat barn next to her summer home.

Lortel died in 1999 at the age of 98. Summer weekend productions continued until two years ago, when the directors of the foundation closed the theater, saying repairs were necessary. The org instead presented an abbreviated summer program (four weekend shows) at Lortel’s Off Broadway theater. The White Barn’s doors have not opened since.

Spitzer said Lortel’s gift of the Connecticut property to the foundation comes with the restriction that it continue operations there and that the nonprofit foundation can only hold the property if it keeps the theater open. Phone calls to the foundation were not returned.

Spitzer said the foundation has not shown how the continued operation of the theater would be “impossible or impractical.” The foundation, he said, offers no proof that it operates the theater at a loss. Indeed, he said, the foundation — which has assets of more than $30 million — has ample funds to operate the White Barn as well as other activities in New York. Spitzer said the theater does not have the burden to return a commercial profit.

Spitzer also pointed out the foundation has not attempted to solve any of the problems it claims the White Barn faces, including zoning restrictions.

If the court does OK the sale, Spitzer said the foundation has to spell out how it will spend the money and must conform to the restrictions of the will.

Connecticut’s Blumenthal agreed, saying, “The full force of my office will be against any ill-advised effort to disregard the duty and directive that the executors must honor.”

So far, the court has not made a decision.

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