While always keeping an open mind about each new show they see, theater critics are like everyone else: the idea of going to some theaters excites them more than the thought of going to others. We asked four New York City critics to name their favorite Off-Broadway theater, based on their experiences there, and also to name, well, the one they approach with the most trepidation. (Picks are based on theaters that do curated producing and/or presenting; rental houses omitted.)
Favorite: St. Ann’s Warehouse has probably the best batting average, but I’m inclined to dock it a point or two because it so rarely commissions/produces theater pieces of its own as opposed to importing great stuff. So I’ll go with its fellow (soon-to-be) Brooklynites, Theatre for a New Audience. Still the best Shakespeare in town, thanks to the likes of Arin Arbus and Darko Tresnjak, plus a forceful and eloquent advocate for the likes of Edward Bond and Adrienne Kennedy.
The least successful? At the risk of seeming impious, La MaMa had and has its share of eye-gougers. But I think that was sort of the point in a weird way: Here was a theater that spent decades packing its multiple spaces with people that Ellen Stewart respected or valued or just plain liked. If and when it worked out, terrific; if not, come back next week! Hell, come back tomorrow! Even if we occasionally vowed not to return for a good long while, it never stuck.
Best: The Public. It’s an open secret that theater critics receive free tickets, but if this privilege ever ceases, I’d still shell out to go to the Public. While they could do more with their many spaces and not be so quick to seek out Broadway transfers, the Public provides a home for established playwrights while cultivating new voices via the Public Lab, Under the Radar, and Joe’s Pub, offering some of the most varied programming available.
Most disappointing: La MaMa. While no one would question the historical importance of the theater Ellen Stewart established (that Off-Off-Broadway exists at all is largely down to her efforts), in the past several decades La MaMa has become increasingly irrelevant, offering work mired in the past rather than the future. But with a new artistic director and a renewed commitment to technology, perhaps a hot young Mama will appear.
Favorite: Vineyard Theatre. Adequate legroom and comfortable seats have their place, but only when combined with memories of great shows does a venue become truly extraordinary. As a performer, I’d want my ashes scattered over the downstairs space at P.S.122, but as a reviewer, the Vineyard Theatre has most consistently given me unforgettable evenings: Nicky Silver’s plays, Avenue Q, Brutal Imagination, How I Learned to Drive, The Scottsboro Boys. Their production history makes me wish I’d seen everything.
Least favorite: Axis Company. Well-to-do auteur Randy Sharp took over the Ridiculous Theatrical Company’s fabled space in the late ’90s, and souped it up into a state-of-the-art black box rivaled only by that of tech-heads 3-Legged Dog. Her deep pockets lure many a talented downtown luminary into her dark basement. The problem: Sharp fills her seasons with what amount to gothic bad-taste vanity projects; she’s the Stephenie Meyer of downtown theater. This could be one of the best theaters in the city if money really could buy artistic merit. But it can’t.
Favorite: Whenever I feel the need for a return to child-like wonder in the theater, I turn to The New Victory for its impeccably curated mix of international family-friendly offerings. Not the cirque-like programming, but rather productions like a very adult Rapunzel (New Yorkers’ introduction to Britain’s Kneehigh Theatre); Nevermore, an equally mature look at Edgar Allan Poe from Canada’s Catalyst Theatre; and an environmental Grimm Tales from London’s Young Vic.
Least: Once a leader in the presentation and production of cutting-edge work by both U.S. and international artists, La MaMa’s offerings of recent memory feel not so much incisive and experimental but curiously retro. The challenge for the organization as it faces a new era will be seeking out and providing a home to a new generation of theater practitioners and building upon its undeniably historic place in the American theater.