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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Off Broadway Favorites of 2013

ImageI’m not calling this post the “Best of” Off Broadway 2013, because there is so much to see and so much that I didn’t see (i.e., Fun Home, Here Lies Love, Buyer & Seller, etc.).

However, here are a few words about some of my favorites.

Tally’s Folly (Roundabout): Two people (Matt Friedman and Sally Talley), one setting (An old boathouse on the Talley place, a farm near Lebanon, Missouri). Fortunately, the actors playing Matt & Sally in Roundabout’s revival of this 1979 Lanford Wilson Pulitzer-prize winning play were Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson. Their performances, along with the simplicity and truth of the play, wove a 97-minute spell over the audience as we watched two disparate people find love, in spite of their differences and the turbulent world around them. Every minute was glorious.

The Whale (Playwrights Horizons): Two words: Shuler Hensley. He plays Charlie, a 600-pound apartment-bound man whose deep unhappiness is causing him to slowly eat himself to death. Hensley, a Tony winner for his portrayal of Jed in the revival of Oklahoma, is one of our best stage actors. Wearing an enormous fat suit and breathing laboriously, he still manages to show us the humanity and beauty inside his character. It’s a performance I’ll never forget.

Nothing to Hide (Werner Entertainment/Ostar Productions at Signature): Starring Helder Guimarães and Derek DelGaudio. Using nothing more than decks of playing cards (and a cameo appearance by a sock monkey) these two masters of distraction and sleight of hand amuse and amaze audiences. Direction is by Renaissance man Neal Patrick Harris, who is President of the Academy of Magical Arts and—who knew?—a bona fide “magic geek”. DelGaudio is a Los Angeles-based magician who consults for Walt Disney Imagineering and has been named Close-up Magician of the Year for 2012 and 2013. Guimarães, a Portuguese now based in California, became the youngest ever World Champion of Card magic in 2006 at the age of 23. The show came to NYC from a record-breaking run at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. These charming performers make it look easy, but they will amaze you.

What’s It All About? (New York Theatre Workshop): It’s all about talent and creativity. Subtitled “Bacharach Reimagined,” this innovative production was conceived by Kyle Riabko, who has appeared on Broadway in Spring Awakening and Hair. Riabko, along with an energetic young cast of singers (who also play all of the instruments in the production) perform Riabko’s new arrangements of all those Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs that are etched into your brain: “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” “Alfie,” “Always Something There to Remind Me,” and many more. The songs are all about love and loss, and here the emphasis is on the lyrics, which are often very touching. There are several sofas on both sides of the stage where some members of the audience are seated. I was lucky to be seated there, practically on the set. It brought back memories of long evenings spent in friends’ basements, hanging out listening to records. Riabko and the other 20-somethings in the show allow the audience to hear these old standards in new, exciting ways. I’m hoping for a move to Broadway.

Old Hats (Signature): There’s a lot of angst and sturm und drang Off Broadway, and it can get depressing. What a joy then, to experience an evening of pure delight with three comedic pros (Bill Irwin, David Shiner, and Nellie McKay). Irwin, a Tony Award-winning actor and original member of the Pickle Family Circus, and Shiner, a former street performer who later starred with Cirque du Soleil, have performed together before, in Fool Moon on Broadway. That production won a Tony for Unique Theatrical Experience. The effervescent Nellie McKay serves as Old Hats’ musical director and performs vocals, piano, and ukulele (an instrument in short supply in today’s theater). Irwin and Shine mix it up, alternating old Vaudeville routines with really creative new bits, especially one involving the use of an iPad. So much fun, I smiled throughout the entire performance.

The Explorers Club (Manhattan Theatre Club). Speaking of smiling throughout a performance…here’s what I wrote about The Explorers Club in a previous Shari on the Aisle post:

Written by Nell Benjamin (Tony and Drama Desk-nominated playwright of Legally Blonde), it is an hour and 45 minutes of madcap delight. When you’re not chuckling you will at least have a smile on your face. (If not, sorry—you are a hopeless curmudgeon). The entire cast is top notch, and the incredibly detailed set by Donyale Werle, crammed with clubby details, is practically worth the price of admission. Delightful, silly fun.