EXPLORING THE WORLD “OFF BROADWAY”

Off Broadway

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway. But many Off Broadway shows are equally dazzling.

When you think of New York City theatre, most likely the first word that comes to mind is Broadway. And yes, with 40 theatres, the Big Apple’s Great White Way is justifiably regarded as the theatre capital of the world. But if you haven’t explored the exciting world of Off Broadway, you’re missing out on some terrific theatrical experiences.

What is the difference between “Broadway” and “Off Broadway?” The definition has less to do with a theatre’s actual location than with its seating capacity. In fact, you’ll find very few “Broadway” theatres with an actual Broadway address. (Since you asked, the four Broadway houses that are “on Broadway” are the aptly named Broadway Theatre, the Marquis, the Palace, and the Winter Garden).

A Broadway theatre has at least 500 seats. An Off Broadway theatre has between 100 and 499 seats. (Any venue with 99 or fewer seats is classified as Off Off Broadway). Almost all official Broadway theatres are located between 41st and 54th Streets, east and west of Broadway. One exception: Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont, way up on West 65th Street.

The largest Broadway house, with 1938 seats, is the Lyric (formerly the Foxwoods, Hilton, and Ford) on 42nd Street. The honor of smallest Broadway house goes to the Helen Hayes (formerly the Little Theatre) on 44th Street, with 597 seats.

What are some notable Off Broadway theatre venues? Here are five well worth a visit:

Laura Pels Theatre (111 W. 46th St.). Part of the prestigious not-for-profit Roundabout Theatre company (which also produces shows on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre and Studio 54), the Pels presents top quality fare, often featuring star performers.

Currently showing: Indian Ink, by four-time Tony Award winner Tom Stoppard, starring Tony and Golden Globe winner Rosemary Harris and accomplished British actress Romola Garai. This is an engaging, romantic tale that spans two continents (India and Europe) and two eras (1930’s and 1980’s). Stoppard explores his favorite topics: art and relationships.

Playwrights Horizons (416 W. 42nd St.). Playwrights is a 43-year-old theatre company dedicated to the support and development of contemporary American playwrights, composers and lyricists. The Playwrights complex includes 2 theatres–the Main Stage and the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre.

Currently showing: Grand Concourse, by Heidi Schreck, a two-time Obie Award-winning actor. The play, set in a Bronx church soup kitchen, where “idealism and reality meet head on”.

Vineyard Theatre (108 E. 15th St.). The nonprofit Vineyard theatre has produced groundbreaking new plays and musicals for 30 years, including Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive (1998 Pulitzer) and Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women (1994 Pulitzer). Several of its productions have transferred to Broadway, including Avenue Q and The Lyons with Linda Lavin.

Currently showing: Billy & Ray, by Mike Bencivenga, starring Vincent Kartheiser (TV’s “Mad Men”), Drew Gehling, Larry Pine (Broadway’s Casa Valentina), and Sophie von Haselberg (Bette Midler’s “Mini Me” daughter). Directed by Garry Marshall. The true story of how Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler battled the Hollywood censors and each other to create the movie classic Double Indemnity.

Signature Theatre (480 W. 42nd St.). Founded in 1991 by James Houghton, Signature is the first theatre company to devote an entire season to the work of a single playwright. The organization recently moved into the gorgeous, Frank Gehry-designed Pershing Square Center, which features three performance spaces connected by a central lobby and café. Every seat during a show’s initial run costs only $25.

Currently showing: Our Lady of Kibeho, by current playwright-in-residence Katori Hall. The play tells the story of how a young Rwandan school girl’s visions of the Virgin Mary affects her school and village.

Coming soon: A Particle of Dread (The Oedipus Variations), by former Signature playwright-in-residence Sam Shepard—a modern-day take on Oedipus Rex.

The Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher St.). Formerly the Theatre de Lys, this intimate Greenwich Village theatre was renamed for actress/producer Lortel in 1981. Her portrait graces the lobby. The Lortel presents works staged by various non-profit theatre companies.

Currently showing: MCC Theatre’s Punk Rock, by Simon Stephens (he also wrote Broadway’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). Set in a private school outside of Manchester, England, the play is based on Stephens’ own experiences as a school teacher. The play is described as “an honest and unnerving chronicle of contemporary adolescence at the breaking point.”

I hope you’ll start exploring the wonderful world that lies just Off Broadway. I promise you’ll discover a treasure trove of insightful, professional productions—and since ticket prices Off Broadway are generally much more modest than those for Broadway productions—you’ll save a bundle while enjoying excellent theatre.

Click here for a comprehensive list of links to Off Broadway theatre.

You can find a comprehensive listing of Broadway shows, along with discount information and reviews, at Broadway Helper.

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DISGRACED

Disgraced

Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.

Aspiration, Assimilation, and the American Dream

Lead Cast: Hari Dhillon (Amir), Gretchen Mol (Emily), Danny Ashok (Abe), Josh Radnor (Isaac), Karen Pittman (Jory)

Playwright: Ayad Akhtar

Director: Kimberly Senior

In a nutshell: Ever since the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, a steady wave of immigrants have left the familiar surroundings of their homelands for a better life in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Some are determined to forget their lives in the old country and to assimilate as quickly as possible to their adopted American homeland. Others cling fiercely to their traditions.

Disgraced is about Amir, a young, ambitious Pakistani-American attorney (Hari Dhillon) who embodies the American Dream. Amir appears to have it all: he is handsome, married to a successful and beautiful American artist (Gretchen Mol), and on the partnership track at a prestigious law firm. He drinks the finest whiskey and wears $600 Charvet shirts. Yet, despite his best efforts, over the taut 90 minutes of this riveting play, everything somehow goes wrong, and Amir loses everything. The perfect world he has so carefully constructed crumbles to dust.

Background: Disgraced won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play premiered in Chicago in 2012 (by American Theatre Company). It was produced Off Broadway by LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater in 2013 and Off West End in London earlier this year (also featuring Hari Dhillon and Danny Ashok). Kimberly Senior directed both productions, as well as the current Broadway production. The playwright, Ayad Akhtar, is also a novelist (“American Dervish”) and an actor. He co-wrote and starred in the film “The War Within” and starred as Neel Kashkari in HBO’s adaptation of “Too Big to Fail.”

The Plot: In an attempt to hide his Pakistani/Muslim roots, hot shot attorney Amir has created a new identity for himself. He has adopted the Indian surname Kapoor and, unbeknownst to his wife, he has even managed to change his social security number. However, as in a Shakespearian tragedy or Greek myth, once the die is cast, nothing can halt Amir’s rapid descent into chaos and loss.

In Disgraced, the precipitating event to Amir’s downfall is his decision, against his better judgment, to acquiesce to pleas from his liberal wife Emily and his idealistic nephew Abe (real name, Hussein) to help an imprisoned Muslim cleric whom they claim has been falsely accused of funding terrorism. Although Amir does nothing more than visit the Imam in jail, The New York Times mentions his name and law firm in an article about the Imam, making it appear that Amir is acting as his defense attorney. The firm (whose partners are Jewish) then discovers Amir’s true ethnic and religious background—and he becomes disgraced in their eyes.

The mise en scene in Disgraced is a familiar one: the dinner party. Amir and Emily are hosts to Emily’s art dealer, Isaac, and his wife Jory, a colleague at Amir’s law firm. They are of diverse ethnic backgrounds: Amir is a lapsed (some might say, self-loathing) Muslim, Isaac is Jewish, and Jory is African American. Liberal Emily glorifies the Islamic culture and incorporates its images into her art. She hopes to convince Isaac to launch a show of her work.

What’s Really Going On: It’s been said that to keep the peace at social gatherings, two potential powder keg topics should be avoided: politics and religion. Unfortunately for Amir (but fortunately for the dramatic tension of the play), none of Akhtar’s characters follow that advice. And no one emerges unscathed.

Although Amir denounces Islam’s ancient tenets as irrelevant in today’s modern world, in the play’s most shocking moment, he admits that, because of his upbringing, he felt a sense of pride for his people on 9-11. The audience, as well as the other characters on stage, let out a collective gasp at this revelation.

A lot more transpires in this intelligent, artfully acted play. But to divulge every plot turn would spoil the theatre-going experience.

Furthermore: As I left the theatre, I had three thoughts:

  1. You can change your name, you can deny your roots, but you can never escape who you really are.
  2. Racism exists all around us—sometimes in the most unexpected places.
  3. Civilization is a very thin veneer that can erode very quickly once things go wrong.

(Discuss amongst yourselves).

Should you go? Absolutely. This is a thought-provoking, engaging evening at the theatre. Plus, at only 90 minutes, you have the option of having dinner after the performance. That way, you and your dinner companions can launch your own discussion of the thorny topics Akhtar raises in Disgraced.

Keep in mind: Disgraced is a show for adults, covering provocative, complex themes. Leave the kids (under 16) at home.

Trivia: Like his Disgraced character Amir, playwright Akhtar is a first generation Pakistani-American. He has said that to write Disgraced he “had to turn and look over my shoulder at what I was running away from.”

TV fans will recognize Josh Radnor from his nine-season run as Ted Mosby on the hit show “How I Met Your Mother” and Gretchen Mol from her role as Gillian Darmody in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” Broadway fans may have seen Karen Pittman in Good People at MTC or in Stew’s Passing Strange. Radnor previously appeared on Broadway in The Graduate, opposite Kathleen Turner, in 2002.

Ticket Tips: Although the play is a critical success, discounted tickets are readily available. You can visit Playbill.com, print out the offer, and take it to the Lyceum box office to choose your seats, or you can visit the TKTS ticket booth in Times Square, where I purchased my orchestra seat. The show is scheduled to run through January 18, 2015.

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