Even Bad Is Better 'Off'

If this season was any indication, the future is brighter Off-Broadway

Such a roster isn't a mere morsel of acting; it's a banquet, with a menu chosen only from actors who are already known quantities. The real list is much longer. If you prefer being thrilled by the art of acting to being left neutral by the sight of media stars in mediocre revivals, New York is an incredibly lucky place to be, teeming with artists of this high stature, who love the theater and make it their life. Yes, they all do their movie and TV bits, their voice-overs and commercials; I realize that they subsidize their stage careers that way, as well as paying off the mortgage, putting the kids through school, upgrading the computer or repairing the boiler. Well, my thanks to those who hire them. We should probably give a special Obie to the producers of Law & Order. But we haven't even got the scope to give one to everybody on the list. I for one sincerely wish we could, but the ceremony would run longer than Wagner's Ring.

Mentioning Wagner reminds me that acting isn't the only realm in which Off-Broadway has been glorious lately. Musicals are Broadway's stock in trade, but Broadway's musicals are increasingly either foreign imports or "properties" manufactured in some corporate corridor. An actual Broadway musical, even one nurtured, like The Wedding Singer or The Drowsy Chaperone , in nonprofit venues across the country, is almost as rare a creature as an actual Broadway play. Our little downtown theater, meanwhile, has been busy creating the kind of original musical that revitalizes and challenges the form. The Broadway year has been dismal, or at best so-so, for musicals, but Off-Broadway's come up with an appealingly varied crop: The year of See What I Wanna See, The Seven, [title of show], Grey Gardens, Miracle Brothers, Bernarda Alba, Fanny Hill, and I Love You Because can hardly be called a dull one in the musical theater. If the musical as a form is about money, then, no, most of these shows will never rank with Hair or Cats as worldwide phenomena. But if the musical is about pleasure and excitement—and it is—I'd say that even the worst of them has The Woman in White or Lestat beat all hollow.

Obie winner S. Epatha Merkerson in Birdie Blue
photo: Joan Marcus
Obie winner S. Epatha Merkerson in Birdie Blue

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Nor is that the end of Off-Broadway's accomplishments this year. The downtown theater stuck its neck out far enough to give us events like Poor Theatre, Heddatron, Abacus Black, and Peninsula; experiment leapt into the mainstream with the stunning In the Continuum. Broadway's sense of the classic repertoire has shrunk, in recent years, to a few plays by Shakespeare and the standard school texts of O'Neill, Miller, and Williams. Off-Broadway, contrariwise, was venturesome: You could see The Revenger's Tragedy and The Gentleman Dancing-Master, or plays by nearly forgotten writers like Dawn Powell and Rose Franken. The same night Hot Feet opened on Broadway, just after the Obies' cutoff date, Off-Broadway offered up a trifecta of powerhouse classics: Howard Brenton's Sore Throats (a New York premiere) at the Duke, Schiller's Mary Stuart at the Pearl, and the two parts of Goethe's Faust at CSC. I have a slight involvement with the first two, but that's not why I mention them: Such plays give the theater stature and meaning, of a kind that uptown's money-system theater can never provide; they give intelligent New Yorkers reasons for going to the theater that an Odd Couple or Pajama Game don't supply. The danger of Broadway is that its monolithic love of profit squeezes a little more density and vibrancy out of New York's idea of theater every year. Off-Broadway and Off-Off exist for the sheer joy of keeping that idea alive in all its richness. Whatever their failings, I'm happy they're here: They make a theater in which I can live and work, without feeling that my sense of adventure, my intelligence, and my imagination are always being crammed into some unworthy, prefabricated object.

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