Wilson’s ‘Radio’ swan song plays on

Playwright's final work gets some polish as it aims for B'way berth

August Wilson was a famously slow rewriter.

During the nearly 25 years it took him to complete his monumental, decade-by-decade chronicle of the 20th-century African-American experience, the playwright had grown accustomed to tinkering, honing, reshaping and refining a new play as it made a leisurely tour of a handful of regionals. Legiters knew Wilson as a hands-on presence in rehearsals, taking his time to mold a script into fighting shape before it hit New York.

But when he died Oct. 2 of cancer, his latest work, “Radio Golf,” had had just two engagements — a spring preem at Yale Rep that earned mixed reviews, and then a run at the Mark Taper in Los Angeles that ended Sept. 18.

The timing has left the legit community wondering how much work Wilson had the chance to do on “Radio Golf,” especially given that his illness had limited his involvement in rehearsals in L.A. And will the disappointing sales of Wilson’s last few Broadway outings affect a promised Rialto run of “Golf”?

Helmer Kenny Leon (“Gem of the Ocean”) staged “Radio Golf” at the Taper in L.A., and is expected to mount it in Seattle, Baltimore and Chicago (with a possible stop in Boston). He told Variety Wilson had done significant work on “Radio Golf” while it was at the Taper, and Leon and the cast had even incorporated major script changes during the final week of the run.

“He knew he was going to give a different sort of energy to rewriting this time,” he says of Wilson, who announced the diagnosis of his terminal liver cancer in August.

Comparing the process to the scribe’s slower pace refining “Gem of the Ocean,” Leon says, “This was way ahead of that.”

“I think the writing is far enough along that I’m not worried about it,” says David Esbjornson, a.d. of Seattle Rep, where the play runs Jan. 19-Feb. 18. “It’s actually pretty tight. I think it’s one of his best pieces.”

It’s also the final work in his landmark Pittsburgh cycle, eight of which have appeared on Broadway. (The remaining play, “Jitney,” was an Off Broadway hit in 2000.)

The completion of such a massive undertaking — unequaled in scope in American drama — is in itself an artistic and sentimental incentive to bring “Radio Golf” to Broadway as a valedictory celebration.

But despite the respect and admiration afforded Wilson by the theater community, the financial incentive is waning.

Although “Fences” broke box office records in 1987, Wilson’s more recent plays on the Rialto, including “King Hedley II” (2001) and a revival of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2003), toplining Whoopi Goldberg, closed with losses after brief runs. “Gem” reached Broadway only after overcoming considerable investment uncertainty, and was cut short after strong reviews but disappointing box office.

Producers remain undeterred.

Prexy Rocco Landesman of Jujamcyn Theaters, which will rechristen one of its Broadway theaters the August Wilson Oct. 16, has publicly pledged to mount “Radio Golf” on the Great White Way. Gordon Davidson, former a.d. of the Taper, and Jack Viertel, creative director of Jujamcyn, have become the leaders of the effort. They fill the role formerly played by Wilson’s longtime champion and producer, Benjamin Mordecai, who died in May.

“Gordon and I are prepared to do this,” Viertel says, adding that they’ve just begun discussions. “Broadway is the plan.”

According to John Breglio, Wilson’s lawyer, it’s too early to say what will happen with Sageworks, Mordecai and Wilson’s production company dedicated to mounting the playwright’s works.It’s also not yet clear whom Constanza Romero, Wilson’s widow, will name to manage the estate, or whether that person will adhere to Wilson’s strict beliefs that only black directors should tackle his works. (That applies to film as well; Wilson nixed a proposed movie version of “Fences” when Norman Jewison was attached to direct.)

“All I can say for sure is we’ve all made the commitment to August and to ‘Radio Golf,’ ” Breglio says. “It’s just too soon to talk business.”

(Frank Rizzo contributed to this report.)

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