A question to all you traveling theater buffs: Near what New York "square" were six out of the last eight Pulitzer Prize-winning plays first presented? If you answered Times Square, you were dead wrong. In fact, none of those memorable hits began their lives in the Broadway theaters that surround Times Square, and only half of them even played the Great White Way eventually. All were nurtured in so-called off-Broadway theaters, five in the area surrounding 14th Street's Union Square, the new and perhaps truer heart of New York's legendary theater scene. It's in this trendy, restaurant-crammed slice of the Big Apple, in more intimate and certainly less expensive playhouses, that the Eugene O'Neills, Tennessee Williamses, and Arthur Millers of our generation are currently presenting their shows.
That's no secret to New Yorkers. But the legions of tourists who fill the seats of Broadway theaters night after night rarely realize there's an alternative to the flashy, $85-a-pop extravaganzas that crowd midtown. And the same visitors mistakenly think that because they've chosen a "name brand" show they're going to be seeing the best the city has to offer. While there are outstanding productions to see on Broadway, few are as intellectually challenging or provocative as what you'll find in the smaller theaters. As Tim Sanford, artistic director of the well-respected Playwrights Horizons put it: "There's a homogeneity to the shows that get picked for Broadway. They have to have a marketing hook or an overwhelming critical consensus to move. If a play is seen as edgy or controversial, commercial producers may shy away from it, even if it's had good reviews."
There's also a dirty little secret about long-running Broadway shows: chronic fatigue syndrome. It's very difficult to keep a show fresh year after year. The original stars leave; replacement casts are "put in" by stage managers, rarely getting to work with the director; and the repetitiveness of doing the same thing eight times a week can transform a vital piece of theater into a pallid imitation. A few years back, the original creators of Les Miserables visited the show unannounced and promptly fired all but one lead actor, appalled that so many of the players were simply walking through their performances.
Shows off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway have a shorter shelf life. With the exception of The Fantasticks (which ran for an astounding 42 years), these productions rarely stick around for more than a few months and rarely change casts.
They're also significantly less pricey, averaging $45 a ticket at the 40-or-so off-Broadway theaters, just $15 at the nearly 80 off-off-Broadway houses (as compared with the $65-$85 rates of most Broadway productions). And a few simple steps can knock down the off-Broadway costs considerably. Visit the TKTS booth in Times Square (47th Street and Broadway) or downtown (Bowling Green Park Plaza) on the day of the show for discounts of up to 50 percent to both Broadway and off-Broadway productions, reducing the off-Broadway expense to about $25 per person. Two prominent theater Web sites, playbill.com and theatermania.com, offer coupons that can be downloaded and used either over the phone or at the box office for savings of up to 50 percent (you simply become a "member" for free to get the goodies). Real daredevils can vie for "rush tickets" available only on the day of the show, sometimes only within the hour before curtain, which can drop the cost of off-Broadway plays and musicals to $10.
Theatergoers can even see shows for free if they're willing to don a black-and-white outfit and seat people. To cut costs, many theaters employ volunteer ushers. (Simply call a couple of weeks in advance, choose a night, and you're hired.)
So, what to see? Where can you be reliably assured of a profound and highly engrossing off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway evening, given the fact that you probably haven't heard of the play that's being presented - or of its unknown playwright or actors? With the help of a number of theater professionals, we've compiled a highly subjective list of quality off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway companies. These are the ones, we think, that do consistently entertaining and thoughtful work. The magazine Time Out New York is also an excellent and highly inclusive source for theater listings and reviews.
Each of our listings is preceded by either two stars (for off-Broadway theaters with, on average, $45 seats) or one star (denoting an off-off-Broadway theater with seats for about $15). In each case, we carefully list the discounts to which members of the public are entitled.
New York Theatre Workshop 79 East Fourth Street, nytw.org
An off-Broadway powerhouse, New York Theatre Workshop is known for its heady, intellectually satisfying pieces. Artistic Director Jim Nicola told us, "We tend to do plays that have a real connection to history, in the sense that we always try to relate the individual experience to those of others in the river of time. History gives you the capacity to look around, see what's around, and also see that it doesn't have to be this way." Discounts: Student tickets $15, senior citizens (over 65) $28. Ten tickets at $10 go on sale two hours before curtain. Also uses playbill.com and theatermania.com. Ushering: Five volunteer ushers per night, call two weeks ahead. Greatest Hits: Rent (Pulitzer Prize), Dirty Blonde, Quills.
The Public Theater 425 Lafayette Street, publictheater.org
With a strong emphasis on American playwrights, the Public Theater strives to "reflect the city we live in," according to Director of Marketing and Audience Development Donna Walker-Kuhne. "The Broadway theater offers fantasy. The Public offers reality, a reality that is eclectic and multicultural. You'll get the same polish and finish here as you do on Broadway, but the stories are much closer to home." Along with five performance spaces at its impressive Lafayette Street home (the former Astor Library), the Public presents free and star-studded Shakespeare in the Park each summer. Discounts: $15 rush tickets an hour before showtime for non-sold-out performances. Also check TKTS. Ushering: No. Greatest Hits: A Chorus Line (Pulitzer Prize); Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk; Elaine Stritch at Liberty; Topdog/Underdog (Pulitzer Prize).
Brooklyn Academy of Music 30 Lafayette Avenue and 651 Fulton Street, both in Brooklyn. Go to bam.org for directions and schedules.
"I'm like a Geiger counter," says Executive Producer Joseph Melillo, "sweeping around the globe to find world-class artists who are doing mature, adventurous work." Mr. Melillo certainly strikes gold more often than not. BAM has become the place, not only in New York, but throughout the nation, for seeing the top European and Asian theater and dance artists. Discounts: Student/senior rush tickets $10 (call 718/636-4100 at noon, day of performance, to check availability). Ushering: No. Greatest Hits: Works by Ingmar Bergman, Peter Brook, Robert Wilson, Mark Morris.
The Ontological-Hysteric Theater 131 East 10th Street, ontological.com
Richard Foreman's dreamscapes have consistently challenged and intrigued audiences for 30-plus years. Playing more to the subconscious mind than the conscious mind, this is theater at its most challenging and surreal. Discounts: $15 tix, 'nuf said. Ushering: No. Greatest Hits: Bad Boy Nietzsche, Pearls for Pigs.
Playwrights Horizons playwrightshorizons.org
As the name implies, this theater concentrates on the craft of playwriting, offering authors a forum to develop new works. In the past few years, the company has been especially successful with its innovative musicals. Playwrights is building a new theater (to open in 2003) and is currently bouncing from house to house in the Times Square area. Discounts: playbill.com, TKTS booths, $15 student rush tickets two hours before show. Ushering: Yes, call a month in advance. Greatest Hits: Driving Miss Daisy (Pulitzer Prize), Sunday in the Park with George (Pulitzer Prize), The Heidi Chronicles (Pulitzer Prize), Falsettos.
The Vineyard Theatre 108 East 15th Street, vineyardtheatre.org
The Vineyard veers from top-notch plays and musicals to pieces that land firmly in the realm of performance art. A mixed bag, but always interesting and well performed. Discounts: TKTS booths, theatermania.com. $15 student rush tickets on the day of the show, sometimes $20 general rush tickets too (check Vineyard's Web site). Ushers: Three per performance, call three weeks ahead. Greatest Hits: Three Tall Women (Pulitzer Prize), Fully Committed, How I Learned to Drive (Pulitzer Prize), Goblin Market.
The New Victory Theater 209 West 42nd Street, newvictory.org
Innovative, fun performances for children and families right on no-longer-bawdy 42nd Street. The curators look for work both in the United States and abroad that will appeal to all ages. To that end, they book quality puppet shows, acrobatic and circus troupes, "new vaudeville" acts as well as theater pieces, all of which can be previewed with video-streaming at the theater's Web site. Discounts: None, but tickets are affordable at $10, $20, or $30. Ushering: No. Greatest Hits: Ain't Nothin' but the Blues, The Flaming Idiots.
P.S. 122 150 First Avenue, ps122.org
Set in an abandoned school, P.S. 122 is as downtown and edgy as theater gets. "We don't have many toilets, the seats are rough, we don't have a real lobby, but it's all about the work and most of our work is pretty entertaining. We do really interesting failures," joked Mark Russell, artistic director. "Over in Europe there are a lot of cultural centers where this type of small, funky theater happens. Here, it's just us." A true New York experience, and a place to see the big names of tomorrow while they're still experimenting. Shows at 7:30, 8:30, and 10:30 most nights. Discounts: None, but tickets cost just $12 to $20. Check Web site for free student and senior tix. Ushers: Three per show. Greatest Hits: Blue Man Group, works by Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, John Leguizamo, Meredith Monk.
Adobe Theatre Company Various venues in SoHo, adobe.org
A young, hip scene, Adobe serves drinks and plays dance music before and after shows for a party atmosphere. Its plays tend to focus on myths, urban and otherwise, which are wittily skewed before evening's end. Discounts: None, but tix are just $12. Ushering: No. Greatest Hits: The Handless Maiden, Duet!