TAKING OFF / OFF-BROADWAY'S SOARING THIS SEASON;
HERE`S A GUIDE TO STAGING A GREAT TIME
By Patrick Pacheco
June 20, 1999
Looking back over the Broadway season recently, theater critics and
reporters repeatedly pointed to Margaret Edson's "Wit," starring
Kathleen Chalfant, as having set the gold standard.
Of course, this drama about a professor of English literature dying
of ovarian cancer isn't on Broadway. It's at the Union Square Theatre
downtown, far from the glitter of its more glamorous sisters uptown.
But that's just the point: Off-Broadway to some extent has been
eclipsing Broadway with the luster of such established hits as "Wit,"
"Killer Joe," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "De La Guarda," "Symphonie
Fantastique," "Blue Man Group" and "Stomp," and such new shows as
"bash," which brings Calista Flockhart back to the New York stage. Even
Warren Leight's "Side Man," this year's Tony winner for Best Play,
played two Off-Broadway engagements before transferring to Broadway.
The choices available Off-Broadway are staggering - everything from
Twiggy and Harry Groener as Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward in the
musical "If Love Were All" at the Lucille Lortel, to the sex farce
"Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight" with Clea Lewis (formerly of
TV's "Ellen") at the Promenade, to the long-running satiric revue
"Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know" at Club Ibis, and the Gen-X
play "Wonderland," set in Sag Harbor, by "Party of Five" writer-producer
Julia Dahl at the American Place. Then, of course, there is the plethora
of shows offOff-Broadway - a distinction dictated by such factors as
theater size, union contracts, etc.
If you've been thinking about taking in a show Off-Broadway but
aren't sure what you're likely to find there, the selective guide that
follows will help you navigate your way around the burgeoning theatrical
scene, where the ticket prices average $45 but can reach Broadway levels
at $65, or dip to $20. (Many of these theaters offer challenges for
those who have problems with stairs. When booking tickets, ask about
wheelchair access and elevators to and from the bathrooms, as some
productions can provide assistance if given advance notice. You might
also inquire about senior and student discounts.)
Edson's Wit, the winner of countless honors this season including
the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is playing at the Union Square Theatre on
East 15th Street, a neighborhood filled with restaurants, parking
garages and a vital street life. Though the 499-seat theater is one of
the larger Off-Broadway houses, the experience of seeing "Wit" there is
still more intimate than it would have been on Broadway, a move its
producers once sought unsuccessfully. (Some Broadway theater owners
considered the successful show's commercial prospects to be doubtful.)
"I'm glad we didn't move now," says Daryl Roth, a producer. "There are
some shows that just thrive better Off-Broadway." If you want to see
Kathleen Chalfant's riveting performance you'd best book your tickets
fast; she'll only be in the show through Aug. 8.
THE UNION SQUARE is in the same neighborhood as the Century
of Off-Broadway's newest and most comfortable theaters, home of David
Marshall Grant's critically acclaimed Snakebit. The play, about the
emotional crises in the lives of a gay social worker, a young movie-star
hunk and his wife, has been struggling lately at the box office, so you
might want to catch it soon. The theater features one of the advantages
that most Off-Broadway houses have over Broadway ones: excellent sight
Just down the street from the Century is another new theater, the
Daryl Roth, home of De La Guarda, the 65-minute Argentine import that
combines throbbing techno-pop, harnessed aerialists and physical antics
that invite the participation of the audience. You remain standing
throughout the show as the action explodes around you; it's best to
wear comfortable old clothes lest you get in the way of spraying water
or some other substance.
Two other shows for which it's best to dress down are Blue Man Group
and "Stomp." "Blue Man" - the long-running extravaganza of new-age
pop, satiric vignettes and splashing paint - is at the Astor Place
Theatre in the teeming East Village, right across from the Public
Theater. The first couple of rows of the tiny Astor Place, where the
show has been ensconced since 1991, come with plastic sheeting - so
that audience members won't end up as paint-splattered as the actors.
The show recently lowered top ticket prices from $65 to $55.
Stomp, another longtime East Village tenant, at the historic
Orpheum Theatre on Second Avenue at 8th Street, is also a visceral
theatrical experience - nonstop loud music and percussive effects
executed by a highly inventive troupe intent on raising hell (and lots
of dust). The neighborhood offers a wide array of international cuisines
if you want to catch a bite - from the famed Second Avenue Deli to
Indian restaurant row on 6th Street.
TO THE WEST is the Minetta Lane, the Greenwich Village theater where an
Australian duo known as the Umblical Brothers (David Collins and Shane
Dundas) is presenting Thwak, the latest in a long line of shows powered
by vocal and physical acrobatics. Unlike Broadway productions, where
there's usually a 10-minute leeway beyond the announced curtain time,
Off-Broadway shows start closer to the hour; and it's particularly
unwise to be late to this show, as latecomers tend to be fodder for the
Farther west, on Christopher Street, is the Lucille Lortel Theatre,
named after the former actress who, before she passed away last month,
had earned the sobriquet the Queen of Off-Broadway for her long career
as a producer and community activist. The 299-seat theater, considered
one of Off-Broadway's most desirable, is hosting If Love Were All,
Sheridan Morley's oh-so-twee musical homage to Gertrude Lawrence and
Noel Coward, which showcased last summer at Sag Harbor's Bay Street
Its polar opposite, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the hot rock musical
about an "internationally ignored" East German singer scarred by a
botched transsexual operation, is nearby at one of the newest
Off-Broadway theaters, the Jane Street. Here's one of the quintessential
Off-Broadway experiences: an appropriately threadbare theater carved out
of the ballroom of an old mariners' hotel, with comfortable movie-chair
seating, a policy of allowing patrons to take drinks back to their
seats, and a show by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask that
puckishly pushes the boundaries. The long-running hit has also recently
instituted both a Monday-Thursday discount of $35 and a low $19.99
ticket price for the 11 p.m. show on Fridays. The theater is at the end
of Jane Street abutting the West Side Highway, an area that tends to be
somewhat deserted after working hours. There's a parking lot across the
street, and not too far away are the Cafes Florent and Alfaro.
Sharing the outrageous trailer-trash aesthetic of "Hedwig" is
Killer Joe at the SoHo Playhouse, which ends its eight-month run June
27. Scott Glenn has returned to his role as a Texas rogue cop and hit
man for the last two weeks. A film of Tracy Lett's noir comedy-drama,
starring the ruggedly handsome actor, is in the works.
Also in SoHo is Basil Twist's Symphonie Fantastique at the HERE
Arts Center on Spring Street, just far enough on the fringe of the
bustling neighborhood to make parking an easier proposition. The show,
which is celebrating its first anniversary, has been described as "Busby
Berkeley with Bubbles," a reference to the '30s film director known for
his kicking chorus lines. Actually, "Symphonie Fantastique" is an
abstract puppet show performed entirely under water, and suitable for
kids 8 and up, who will also enjoy the standing invitation to audience
members to visit backstage after the show and see how it's all put
Farther uptown is the Gramercy Theatre on 23rd Street between Park
and Lexington Avenues, the temporary home of the Roundabout, which is
presenting Richard Greenberg's Hurrah at Last, starring Peter Frechette
as a harried writer navigating the emotional minefields of a family
Christmas. Converted from a movie theater, the Gramercy is a rather cold
and utilitarian space with great sight lines and comfortable chairs.
Parking is plentiful, as are restaurants, with a wide variety available
on Park Avenue South, just a half-block west of the theater.
Also playing in the 20s, at the 79-seat Manhattan Class Company on
28th Street in Chelsea, is the American premiere of Lorena Gale's
Angelique starring Lisa Gay Hamilton (of TV's "The Practice") and
directed by "Wit" director Derek Anson Jones, about an African slave in
Farther uptown is the influential Manhattan Theatre Club, which
occupies two stages at City Center. On Stage I is Ayub Khan-Din's
well-received family drama East Is East, directed by Scott Elliott. On
MTC's Stage II is La Terrasse, a French farce by the screenwriter
Jean-Claude Carriere, about the invasions visited on a couple trying to
rent their apartment while breaking up.
The theater district itself is home to numerous Off-Broadway
theaters, with the hub located in the West 40s off Ninth Avenue.
The biggest hit in the area is The Mystery of Irma Vep. The farcical
revival starring Everett Quinton and Stephen DeRosa is at the Westside
Theatre, the same complex where the long-running revue I Love You,
You're Perfect, Now Change appears to be established forever. (The team
that brought us the latter have also come up with Over the River and
Through the Woods, an Italian-American family comedy at the John
While "Perfect's" theater is one of the most comfortable around,
"Vep" is in a space that leaves much to be desired. There are some
terrible sight lines with poles and low-raked seating, which makes for
much head-craning. Ask for seats in row F of the orchestra, or
On the far west side of 42nd Street is the Signature's new
state-of-the art theater, where Gertrude & Alice: A Likeness to Loving
charts the lives and love of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, the two
mothers of modernism.
Also in the neighborhood are two long-running interactive
comedies, Tony N' Tina's Wedding and Late Nite Catechism, both operating
out of St. Luke's Church on West 46th Street. The "ceremony" for "Tony
N' Tina's Wedding" is at St. Luke's; the "reception," featuring a
baked-ziti dinner with wedding cake for dessert and champagne of
indeterminate vintage, is down the street in the basement of the Edison
Hotel. The hilarious "Late Nite Catechism," which simulates an adult
class of religious instruction for Catholic wannabes under the tutelage
of an iron-fisted nun, is in the basement of the church. The
plastic-form chairs can be a hard sit, so it's a good idea to bring a
cushion to the show, which plays a weekend schedule only. And if you're
still hungry after the ziti or the sisters' snap quizzes, not to worry:
You're right on Restaurant Row.
Off-Broadway currently abounds with "the theatrical memoir," an art
form that tends to thrive in more intimate settings. At the tiny Martin
Kaufman Theatre on the far end of 42nd Street (adjacent to a police
station, so it's safe), former disco diva Vicki Sue Robinson is making
the sequins fly in Behind the Beat, in which she recollects her
well-spent and misspent youth as the troubled daughter of an interracial
couple who worshiped folk singers.
Uptown at the Triad on 72nd Street, the literary McCourt brothers
(Frank and Malachy) show off their Irish gift of gab in A Couple of
Blaguards, the hit show that began at the Irish Rep. There's bar and
food service thoughout, so you have the feeling of being in a pub
listening to some good ol' guys spin yarns.
The Triad, for a long time, had been the home of Forbidden Broadway,
Gerard Alessandrini's poke-in-the-eye at Broadway egos and follies,
which has since moved to the Stardust Diner in midtown Manhattan. While
the show, in its umpteenth incarnation, is funnier than ever, you should
be warned that the audience is packed tighter than a discount airline
flight, which makes the bar and food service before the show and during
intermission an exercise worthy of a circus act. If Alessandrini ever
wanted to satirize his own show, he might start there. But then maybe
that's just part of the Off-Broadway experience: a little cramped, a
little seedy, a bit acrobatic, but fun.
Finally, here's a sampler of upcoming Off-Broadway projects that are
likely to be hot tickets. Already selling well is bash, starring
Calista Flockhart, Ron Eldard and Paul Rudd, which is in previews at the
Douglas Fairbanks on Theater Row, where it opens a one-month run
Thursday. The three one-acts are by Neil LaBute, writer and director of
"In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors," two films that
offer scathing views of male-female relationships. The plays, about
infanticide, gay-bashing and sexual revenge, are said to be just as
Beginning July 6 at the Directors Company on West 43rd Street,
Priscilla Lopez ("A Chorus Line") brings painter Frida Kahlo to life in
Goodbye My Friduchita by Delores C. Sendler. Coming in August, probably
to the Promenade, is If Memory Serves, a new drama by Jonathan Tolins
("Twilight of the Golds") starring Elizabeth Ashley as an aging '70s
television star accused by her son of abusing him as a child. Leonard
Foglia ("Master Class") will direct the production.
Mark Brokaw ("How I Learned to Drive"), one of Off-Broadway's
hottest directors - he recently opened a revival of Albert Innaurato's
"Gemini" at the Second Stage - will be directing Marisa Tomei in The
Lobby, a new play by Kenneth Lonergan ("This Is Our Youth"). A theater
has not yet been announced for the drama, about two cops who use the
apartment building they guard as the scene of a tryst.
And Korean-American comedienne Margaret Cho makes her New York
theatrical debut July 8 at the Westbeth Theatre in I'm the One That I
Want, a one-woman show that mines her experiences as the first
Asian-American to star in her own sitcom. The theater - where Sandra
Bernhard developed her recent Broadway show, "I'm Still Here . . . Damn
It!" - offers nightclub seating and bar and food service. So it's best
to arrive early to grab the seats with the best vantage points at your
table. Then you'll have time to grab a drink, kick back and enjoy before
the room fills up.
Here's where to get tickets for the Off-Broadway shows. (All phone
numbers are area code 212.)
Via TicketMaster: 307-4100
"Blue Man Group" (also from the box office: 254-4370)
"Hurrah at Last" (b.o.: 777-4900)
"Stomp" ( b.o.: 477-2477)
"Thwak" (b.o.: 420-8000)
"Wit" (b.o.: 505-0700)
Via Telecharge: 239-6200
"De La Guarda"
"Forbidden Broadway Cleans Up Its Act"
"Hedwig and the Angry Inch"
"I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change"
"If Love Were All"
"Late Nite Catechism"
"The Mystery of Irma Vep"
"Over the River and Through the Woods"
"Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know"
"Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight" (b.o.: 580-1313)
"Tony N' Tina's Wedding" (or in person at Ticket Central: 416 W. 42nd
"Vicki Sue Robinson: Behind the Beat"
Via Citytix: 581-1212
"East Is East"
"A Couple of Blaguards" 799-4599
"Gertrude and Alice" 244-PLAY
"Goodbye My Friduchita" 712-7458
"Goodnight Children Everywhere" 279-4200 (1-8 p.m.)
"Symphonie Fantastique" 647-0202
ILLUSTRATION/PHOTO: Chart - TICKETS? PLEASE. (see end of
text). 1) Photo by Anita &
Steve Shevett - Off-Broadway can mean off the wall. Witness "Irma Vep,"
right, with Stephen DeRosa and Everett Quinton (in fez), or 2) Photo
by John Mottern - "Blue Man Group," or, 3) Carol Rosegg Photo - at left,
"Forbidden Broadway," featuring, from left, Lori Hammel, Bryan Batt,
Kristine Zbornik (front) and Edward Staudenmayer. 4) Joan Marcus Photo -
Among the dramas is "Wit," below, with Kathleen Chalfant, left, and
Paula Pizzi. 5) Carol Rosegg Photo - Shane Dundas, top, far left, and
David Collins are the Umbilical Brothers in "Thwak"; 6) Photo - "A
Couple of Blaguards," above, captures the Irish wit of the literary
McCourt brothers; 7) AP Photo - Scott Glenn plays trailer trash in
"Killer Joe"; and 8) Carol Rosegg Photo - Michael Cerveris, left, is
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