Saturday, May 7, 2011

Tonys, Yes, But Don’t Forget About Off-Broadway

Now that the Tony Award nominees have been announced and everyone else is busy picking at the list and making their predictions, I thought I might use this time to talk about some of the Off Broadway offerings from this season.

I recently gushed about a little gem of a downtown show called Peter and the Starcatcher, a clever, funny, charming, and delightful prequel to Peter Pan.   If you missed it but wish you hadn’t, the buzz is that a move uptown, possibly to a Broadway theater, may be in the offing.  Since the play was commissioned by Disney Theatrical Productions, there may be some real money behind the buzz. So keep your eyes open and don’t let the grass grow beneath your feet should the transfer happen.

Another “second chance” show you should be looking out for is Other Desert Cities by playwright Jon Robin Baitz.  This is a smart, sharply drawn family drama with political undertones, directed by the multi-talented and ubiquitous Joe Mantello.  Montello just came off directing Laurie Metcalf’s Obie-worthy performance as a mentally damaged woman in Sharr White’s The Other Place (sorry, that one’s closed, too), and he is now knocking them dead as an actor in the lead and Tony-nominated role of Ned Weeks in the revival of Larry Kramer’s masterful The Normal Heart on Broadway.  Other Desert Cities had a sold out run at Lincoln Center and boasted a stellar cast that included Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, and Linda Lavin.  Ideally, a Broadway transfer would keep director and cast intact.   My advice: don’t miss it this time!

Or course, you haven’t missed everything.  So here are some Off Broadway shows you might want to see before they, too, are gone.

High on my list is By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, now on view at the Second Stage.  The play, by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage (for Ruined) is a funny and satirical look at the life and career of an African American actress whose claim to fame was her featured role as a maid in the fictional but authentic-seeming 1933 film, “The Belle of New Orleans.”  Nottage takes jabs at Hollywood racism, both then and now, and also at the over-intellectualizing of serious questions of race in America.  Act I is presented as a very funny screwball comedy that, in Act II, segues into rich satire. If you need more convincing, go to the website for a video glimpse of a mockumentary about “The Belle of New Orleans” and Vera Stark’s place in cinematic history.

This is also a big year for playwright Tony Kushner, who hit the headlines this week when the City University of New York Board of Trustees chopped his name from a list of intended recipients of honorary degrees.  The brouhaha was triggered when one trustee challenged Kushner’s alleged criticism of the State of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.  I’ll confine my comments here to my view that the decision was a pretty foolish one that makes the trustees look like a bunch of idiots, and turn instead to Kushner’s current season in the sun as the focus of the Signature Theatre Company's annual single-playwright showcase.

To begin with, we had a glorious revival of Angels in America, one of the great American plays of the twentieth century, given a grand production in the small confines of the Peter Norton Space.  I’ve already praised it to the skies in a previous blog entry, so let’s turn to the second of the season’s three Kushner plays, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, now on view at the Public Theater. 

IHO,” as the lengthy title is sometimes abbreviated, lacks the cohesion of Angels, but it does contain a spinning array of plots and subplots, fine acting, and brilliant discourse about politics, unionism, Marxism, theology, suicide, fidelity, family ties, birth order, same-sex marriage, prostitution, and more--often told with humor (an early line about cell phone users in the theater draw a hearty laugh and a round of applause) or sharp-tongued sarcasm ("I came here to tweeze your head off and spit in the stump!" is one memorable line). Kushner will say whatever is on his mind when he is writing a new play, and this one, coming in at nearly four hours, could use some editing.  Still, it is well worth a visit and beats the heck out of the pretentiousness that is Jerusalem

Finally, I'd like to tell you about three new Off Broadway shows that are about to open. 

Now in previews at the Little Shubert Theatre is Lucky Guy, a campy romp of a musical featuring Leslie Jordan, best known for his role as Beverley Leslie on the TV sitcom "Will and Grace," and Varla Jean Merman (aka Jeffery Roberson), a very talented drag performer.   Willard Beckham provides the book, lyrics, and music, which ranges from country to rockabilly to novelty numbers to ballads. The story line, such as it is, centers on a plot to steal a song from the winner of a talent contest. If you go, expect a lot of burlesque-type humor, but also take note that within all the silliness, Kyle Dean Massey, who sings the lovely title song, emerges as a star to be reckoned with.  

If you long for more tales of Neverland while you await another opportunity to see Peter and the Starcatcher, you should head on out to the New Victory Theater for the return engagement of Mabou Mines' wistfully poignant production of Peter and Wendy (yes, another Peter Pan play, this one adhering close to J. M. Barrie's original story).  Peter and Wendy features the always brilliant Basil Twist doing duty here as the lead puppeteer, and Karen Kandel as the storyteller, a role for which she has earned a truckload of highly deserved awards.  This is a short run that began yesterday and is scheduled to end on May 22.  Hesitate and you become one of the Lost Boys!

Also something to look forward to is a co-production of the New York Theatre Workshop and Playwrights Horizons of the musical The Shaggs:  Philosophy of the World, based on the true story of a working class father who is determined to find fame and fortune by promoting his not-particularly-talented daughters as a great rock band in the late 1960s. 

Playwrights Horizons, where The Shaggs will be performed, is offering discount tickets of $40 (for performances between May 12 and May 19) and $60 for the rest of the run, through July 3.  You can order online at, using the code SHAGGLOG, or by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 between the hours of noon and 8 p.m. dailty, or by presenting a printout of this blog post to the Ticket Central box office at 416 West 42nd street at the hours listed above.   

So there you have it, a reminder that Broadway alone does not make New York the greatest theater city in the world.  Catch an Off Broadway show today!

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.

1 comment:

  1. Some of the best plays I've seen have been off-Broadway. As someone who doesn't get to New York often, I just wish they had longer runs so I could see more of them! I thought Angels in America was unforgettable, the best theatre experience I've ever had. And I also loved Mistakes Were Made, with Michael Shannon. He gave a total tour de force performance.