New York theater beyond Broadway

NEW YORK

New York theater means Broadway, right? Well, not exactly.

Glitzy musicals like Wicked, Legally Blonde and Young Frankenstein get most of the attention, but those shows and others in the Broadway theater district make up just a fraction of theater in New York.

Theater lovers visiting New York owe it to themselves to get away from the Times Square tourist traps and take in some productions at off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway theaters.

"Broadway consists of only about 35 theaters, while there are 60 to 80 major off-Broadway houses,'' said David Cote, theater editor of Time Out New York, a weekly magazine whose pithy reviews and comprehensive listings make it indispensable to theatergoers.

"Off-Broadway is the bedrock of theater. It's the massive heartland between very expensive, spectacle-oriented Broadway and off-off Broadway, which is an amazing area of experimentation, risk-taking and weirdness.''

Smaller can be better

Off-Broadway includes theaters with 100 to 499 seats, much smaller than the Broadway houses. The definition stems from the contract that performers and stage crew members have with producers of a show, not geography. There are some off-Broadway theaters in the Broadway district.

Cote argues that size matters to the theatergoing experience. "There's something wonderful about sitting closer to the actors and not hearing a computer-amplified musical,'' he said. "I think you're somehow closer to the roots of theater when you see it in a more intimate setting.''

At a time when a Broadway ticket costs upwards of $100, price is a part of the allure of off-Broadway, where top tickets average about $60. Cheaper doesn't mean lesser theater. Many Broadway hits originated off-Broadway, including recent Tony Award winners Spring Awakening, Grey Gardens, Avenue Q, Doubt and I Am My Own Wife.

The 1950s were an artistic heyday for off-Broadway when its theaters presented the American premieres of work by important playwrights such as Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee. The reputation of Eugene O'Neill, then virtually forgotten, was revived through an off-Broadway production of The Iceman Cometh at Circle in the Square.

"Off-Broadway then was very serious,'' said Howard Kissel, who has covered theater for more than 30 years for Women's Wear Daily and the New York Daily News. "Now it's often things with commercial appeal but that wouldn't really work in the larger Broadway houses. I loved Altar Boyz (a long-running hit), but you wouldn't say it was serious. It just worked better in an off-Broadway theater.''

Kissel worries that the constantly escalating cost of New York real estate is squeezing out the traditional homes of off-Broadway theaters. "A lot of what used to be intimate theater spaces no longer exists,'' he said. "The churches and community centers and other buildings that those theaters were in are being torn down because you can make much more money with a 35-story high rise.''

The most consistently excellent off-Broadway productions are probably to be found at nonprofit companies such as the Public Theater, Playwrights Horizons, Second Stage, Vineyard Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop, Signature Theatre Company, Atlantic Theater Company and others.

For many people, the Public is the flagship theater of off-Broadway. Founded by Joseph Papp, it has spawned such hits as Hair and A Chorus Line, and it puts on Shakespeare in the Park every summer in Central Park.

Cote laments that off-Broadway is not especially adventurous these days. "We don't have any Joseph Papps who are aggressively seeking out new talent and nurturing it, engaging the media and challenging their audiences,'' he said. "What we lack is daring directors, tough issue plays and plays that push the boundaries in terms of style.''

Theater with an edge

For theater on the edge, there's off-off-Broadway, which includes venues of 99 seats and fewer. "It can go from amateurish showcases, where a bunch of college graduates put on The Tempest because they want some agents to see their work,'' Cote said. "Then you have companies who have been around for 10, 15 years who are working on a very small scale but creating really interesting, sometimes experimental art. They can be very resourceful.''

He cites Radiohole and the Civilians as off-off Broadway standouts, as well as downtown performance venues PS122, LaMaMa and Here Arts Center.

But whatever your taste, the main thing is to seek out something new and different from the latest Broadway blockbuster.

"If you take a risk on an off-Broadway show, you take a risk on seeing something that could stay with you your entire life: a new drama, an experimental musical or the work of a young company that could startle and excite you,'' Cote said. "If you go off-Broadway — or off-off-Broadway — your run the distinct risk of running into some real art.''

John Fleming can be reached at

fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

What to see now in New York

Off Broadway

Here are five picks by David Cote, theater editor at Time Out New York.

• Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?, the U.S. premiere of a play by Caryl Churchill (Top Girls). Political allegory of American-British relations. Through April 6, Public Theater. (212) 967-7555; publictheater.org.

• The American Dream and The Sandbox, an Edward Albee double bill, directed by the playwright and starring Judith Ivey. In previews; opens March 25 and runs through April 19, Cherry Lane Theatre. (212) 239-6200; cherrylanetheatre.com.

• The Drunken City by Adam Bock. Three young brides-to-be hit the bars and wind up questioning the idea of marriage. In previews; opens March 26 and runs through April 20, Playwrights Horizons. (212) 279-4200; playwrightshorizons.org.

The Sound and the Fury, a production based on William Faulkner's novel, by the experimental theater group Elevator Repair Service. In previews starting April 15; opens April 29 and runs through May 18, New York Theatre Workshop. (212) 460-5475; nytw.org.

• Saved, a new musical with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman and book and lyrics by John Dempsey and Rinne Groff. Adapted from the movie about Christian teens. In previews starting May 9; opens June 3 and runs through June 22, Playwrights Horizons. (212) 279-4200; playwrightshorizons.org.

Broadway

Okay, okay, you want to go to a Broadway show, too. Here are five new shows that look interesting.

• Sunday in the Park with George. The Stephen Sondheim revival boom continues, with a British production (featuring digitally animated projections) of the sometimes brilliant, sometimes problematic musical on making art. Through May 18, Roundabout Theatre Company, Studio 54. (212) 719-1300; roundabouttheatre.org.

• Passing Strange, a rock musical on the black middle class by singer-songwriter Stew (Mark Stewart) and Heidi Rodewald. Belasco Theatre. (212) 239-6200; passingstrangeonbroadway.com.

• In the Heights, a musical set in Washington Heights that mixes salsa, rap and show tunes. Richard Rodgers Theatre. (212) 239-6200; intheheightsthemusical.com.

• Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, an all-black revival of the Tennessee Williams classic starring James Earl Jones as Big Daddy. Broadhurst Theatre. (212) 239-6200; cat2008onbroadway.com.

• South Pacific, the first major revival of the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, directed by Bartlett Sher (The Light in the Piazza) and starring Kelli O'Hara. In previews; opens April 3, Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center. (212) 239-6200; lct.org.

Tickets

And you don't want to spend an arm and a leg? Good luck on that one, but here are a few sources for deals.

• The old standby for discount tickets to Broadway and Off Broadway shows is Theatre Development Fund/TKTS, with two locations: a temporary booth on W 46th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue (the "play only'' window has shorter lines) and the lower Manhattan TKTS booth at South Street Seaport at Front and John streets. Cash only. (212) 221-0885, ext. 251; tdf.org.

• Two useful sites for discount tickets are broadwaybox.com and hitshowclub.com.

• Many theaters have deals detailed on their Web sites. New York Theatre Workshop (nytw.org), for example, has $20 tickets for Sunday evening performances.

For theatergoers ages 18 to 35, a limited number of $20 tickets are available to productions at the Roundabout's theaters by joining its Hiptix program. (212) 719-1300; hiptix.com.

• You can always wait in line at the box office for rush tickets, which go for as little as $20 per performance. Some may be purchased early; others go on sale an hour before curtain.

John Fleming,

Times performing arts critic

. NEW YORK THEATERS

Get your theater fix on foot

New York is not just a great theater town; it's also a great walking town. Howard Kissel, longtime theater critic for the New York Daily News, has combined the two passions in a useful new book, New York Theater Walks (Applause; 154 pages; $16.95).

Kissel devised seven self-guided walking tours that range from Times Square to Greenwich Village to the most significant places in Irving Berlin's life. The walks incorporate landmark theaters, bits of trivia (the East Side apartment where Barbra Streisand lived) and quite a lot of New York history.

"Many people don't realize the extent to which theater is part of New York's history,'' Kissel said in an interview. "People always associate the theater with that little bit of real estate in midtown called Broadway, but, in fact, theater, like a camp follower, has kept pace with the commercial development of New York City, starting down at the bottom of the island and working its way up.''

One of the best things about the book is that it inspires a theatergoer to get off the beaten path and explore Manhattan's neighborhoods. Kissel's personal favorite is the walk through the West Village.

"It's so charming,'' he said. "You have all those theaters in relative close proximity, like the Lucille Lortel and the Cherry Lane, which are around the corner from each other. The Village has wonderful restaurants. You get to see the real New York.''

John Fleming, Times performing arts critic

New York theater beyond Broadway 03/15/08 [Last modified: Saturday, March 15, 2008 6:00am]

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