If Broadway is where the big fish swim, then off-Broadway represents the theatre’s feisty minnows.
The distinction between the two is delineated based on the number of seats in the theatre in question, but certainly not by the quality of the work.
While the main stem may encompass the glitz and glamor commonly associated with professional theatre, the intimacy and artistic freedom that off-Broadway and its host of not-for-profit theatre companies offers often creates an even more combustible environment, conducive to greater artistic risks on the parts of productions and oftentimes greater rewards for an audience. Below are ten productions to watch in the upcoming fall off-Broadway season, followed by a few off-off-Broadway recommendations.
1. Fifty Words, MCC Theater @ Lucille Lortel Theatre
10 September – 25 October
Michael Weller, whose ambitious Iraq War-centered play Beast is currently playing at New York Theatre Workshop, seems to be on a roll. Running simultaneously to Beast is this new play at MCC Theater, directed by Austin Pendleton and starring two of New York’s finest actors, Norbert Leo Butz, known for his work in musicals like Wicked, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Last Five Years, and Elizabeth Marvel, who made a splash this spring in Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls. Butz and Marvel star as a Brooklyn couple experiencing the meltdown of their marriage as their son attends a neighborhood sleepover party. Here’s hoping the production is anywhere near as ambitious and thought-provoking as Beast.
2. Kindness, Playwrights Horizons
25 September – 2 November 2008
As prolific as fellow playwright Neil LaBute, Adam Rapp has lately been churning out plays as if his life depended on it. His latest, Kindness, starring Annette O’Toole, is about an ailing mother who accompanies her son on a trip to New York, where he experiences an extraordinary night with a young woman staying down the hall of their hotel while his mother is out on the town at a popular new musical. Rapp’s sense of originality and suspense ought to make this an emotionally-charged event.
3. Romantic Poetry, Manhattan Theatre Club @ Stage 1
Begins 30 September 2008
From the composer of Dreamgirls, Henry Krieger, in collaboration with Pulitzer-winner John Patrick Shanley (Doubt) comes this brand new musical about a couple on the eve of marriage and the bride’s exes, who come back to haunt them. The show features theatre veterans Jerry Dixon, Mark Linn-Baker, and Ivan Hernandez. Most importantly, be on the lookout for cast member Patina Renea Miller, whose powerhouse Aquarius brought down the house at Shakespeare in the Park’s recent Broadway-bound production of Hair.
4. Streamers, Roundabout Theatre Company @ Laura Pels Theatre
17 October – 11 January 2009
Beginning previews in October, Roundabout associate artistic director Scott Ellis helms a promising revival of David Rabe’s 1976 play Streamers. Set during the escalation of the Vietnam War, Streamers follows four soldiers fresh out of boot camp as they await their deployment, focusing not only on war but on the unexpected, explosive relationships between the men. Roundabout, which focuses mainly on revivals of plays ans musicals, must surely have chosen this play because of its resonance now, when the country is once again at war. Hopefully the story will ring as true to audiences today as it did thirty years ago.
5. Illyria, Prospect Theatre Company @ Hudson Guild Theatre
18 October -16 November 2008
In celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Prospect Theatre Company, one of the company’s most successful productions, Illyria, is being revived, giving a new set of audiences a chance to experience this musical comedy version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Peter Mills is one of the freshest voices in musical theatre in New York today, his musical The Flood having made a splash a few years back because of its nuanced musical treatment of the true story of the 1993 flooding the Mississippi River and its effects on a small Illinois town.
6. Road Show, Public Theater
18 October – 18 December 2008
After several years in limbo, the show once named Wise Guys, Gold!, and Bounce has finally settled on a bold new title for its New York premiere – Road Show. A new Stephen Sondheim musical in New York is always a cause clbre, and this one promises to be no different, featuring Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani as the opportunist Mizner Brothers, whose quest for the American Dream stretched their relationship to the breaking point. The production is directed by renowned British director John Doyle, whose creative revivals of other Sondheim shows (Company, Sweeney Todd) have shed new light on oft-performed shows. His new production of this project, formerly developed under the direction of Sam Mendes and Hal Prince, seeks to overturn the show’s mixed critical reception during it’s Prince-helmed 2003 productions in Chicago and Washington, D.C. I’m betting he’s able to pull it off.
7. The Grand Inquisitor, New York Theatre Workshop
22 October – 23 November 2008
Any opportunity to see a production in the U.S. directed by Peter Brook is worth taking. The renowned British director, who in recent years has been based almost exclusively at the Thtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, where he is artistic director, is one of modern theatre’s greatest practitioners. Having made his mark in the 1960s, pioneering works by Brecht and Beckett, Brook’s work has spanned from Shakespeare to the experimental Marat/Sade. This production, an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, features frequent collaborator Bruce Myers in the title role and should be one of the season’s most thrilling and nuanced offerings.
8. Farragut North, Atlantic Theatre Company
22 October – 29 November 2008
Once rumored for Broadway in a since-thwarted production by Mike Nichols with film star Jake Gyllenhaal, Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, which takes its title from a Washington, D.C. subway station, instead finds itself as one of the Atlantic Theatre Company’s fall offerings. The play follows the career of an up-and-coming press secretary and his run-in with the more back-handed side of politics in Washington on the eve of a tight presidential primary election. Directed by Tony-winner Doug Hughes and starring Tony Winner John Gallagher, Jr. alongside Chris Noth, Farragut North promises to be the perfect play for topical election season theatergoing.
9. On the Town, Encores! @ New York City Center
19 November – 23 November
By now, Encores! is known for its glitzy limited run revivals of musicals from the past. Their mission is generally to revive lesser-known or rarely-revived shows, past productions ranging from well-known entities (Follies, Kismet, Bye Bye Birdie) to forgotten gems (The Apple Tree; No, No, Nanette; Applause), On the Town representing one of the former. With music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, On the Town follows a day in the life of three sailors on leave in New York City, inspired by the 1940s Jerome Robbins ballet Fancy Free. Encores! typically attracts top-notch casts, and though no cast members for On the Town have yet been released, the cast announcement is sure to contain at least a handful of Broadway veterans.
10. Saturn Returns, Lincoln Center Theater @ Mitzi Newhouse Theatre
Begins 16 October 2008
This new play by fast-rising young playwright Noah Haidle makes use of planetary positioning and intrafamilial tensions in order to weave a trans-generational story of a man (portrayed by three different actors as he ages – Robert Eli, John McMartin, and James Rebhorn) and the three women in his life (each played by Rosie Benton). The Mitzi Newhouse is typically home to the plays in Lincoln Center Theater’s repertoire that reflect assured up-and-coming voices in modern drama, and this production looks to continue that trend.
In addition to this fall’s off-Broadway offerings, there are a few off-off-Broadway productions of note as well. Sarah Kane’s Blasted, which caused a minor sensation when it opened at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1995, causing the beginning of the In-Yer-Face movement, finally makes its New York debut at Soho Rep (2 October – 26 October). Also from Britain, the National Theatre’s production of Waves (12 November – 22 November), a multimedia adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves helmed by experimental British director Katie Mitchell, will play the Duke on 42nd Street thanks to Lincoln Center.
Also at the Duke is Matt Sax’s hip-hop musical Clay (6 October – 8 November), the first offering from LCT3, Lincoln Center Theater’s new initiative aimed at advancing the work of emerging playwrights, designers, and directors. Finally, the National Theatre of Scotland, which has made a splash this summer with its production of The Bacchae starring Alan Cumming at Lincoln Center Festival, revives its production of Black Watch (9 October – 30 November) by Gregory Burke, a riveting drama about Scottish involvement in the Iraq War in what promises to be an unmissable event.