My 3 Favorite Off-Broadway Theatres

Last week, I mentioned how most people judge artist’s based on their best work, while I tend to prioritize range in a more holistic approach.

Similarly, when it comes to evaluating off-Broadway theatres, surveyors tend to focus on the pinnacle productions produced by those companies. In that regard, the Tony Award-winning combination of Hamilton and Fun Home — plus a litany of others I could list here, from the popular prestige of Shakespeare in the Park dating all the way back to A Chorus Line and Hair — would probably convince most to place the Public Theatre at the top of their lists.

But as a theatergoer who sees almost everything produced by these major off-Broadway houses, I find myself appreciating those who offer baseline experiences that are at the very least worth experiencing. When I walk into any given theatre, I don’t necessarily remember the highs…but I do harp on the general way I feel about their shows upon exiting the theatre, and that feeling is largely based on the quality of their AVERAGE productions, NOT their BEST productions. And if their average productions are anything but average, those theatres would scale the list of my favorite theatres in New York City.

Some phenomenal theatres that wouldn’t make the cut simply mount too many productions every year to guarantee the basement quality of their ventures will still be high enough to enjoy on some level. For instance, the Public, BAM, and Lincoln Center just have too many stages to program to avoid striking out completely every now and then. And to be honest, these theatres probably wouldn’t take offense to this sentiment, which I can’t even call a criticism; sometimes swinging for the fences results in total whiffs (as for the other heavyweights like Roundabout and Manhattan Theatre Club, let’s just say that they must satisfy audiences with very different taste than my own).

Some of my favorite theatres on the other end of the spectrum are docked for the opposite: Clubbed Thumb and the Park Avenue Armory don’t offer a sufficient number of shows to compare with the rest.

Out of all the theatres in New York, only three, time and time again, never seem to radically err. I’m excited to see every single one of their shows, because I know at the very worst there will be something to chew on for days.

Without further adieu, those theatres are (in no particular order):

  • Playwrights Horizons: As a devout follower of the lineage of the American Drama who’s also interested in the sociopolitical state of America, how can I not adore a theatre that produces new American playwrights exploring American themes? There’s a reason they’ve won so many Pulitzers.
  • St. Ann’s Warehouse: BAM and the Park Avenue Armory give her a run for this title, but St. Ann still reigns supreme in terms of importing the most fascinating concoctions from overseas theatres.   
  • New York Theatre Workshop: No other theatre so consistently expands my conception of what theatre can be.

So all that was a long-winded way to introduce the lineup for New York Theatre Workshop’s next season, because it reaffirms the theatre’s spot at the top (the Next Door @ NYTW series hasn’t been announced yet, but I actually don’t factor in its shows when assessing their seasons because the program is still too new to fairly judge; I’m a lenient guy! I believe in giving theatre folk a chance to get their bearings!)

The highlights of NYTW’s mainstage season:

–I saw Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me at Clubbed Thumb last summer, and it’s still one of the top 5 new plays I’ve seen all season (you’re goddamn right I keep track; how else can I share my favorites of the season come Tony Awards time?). Don’t sleep on director Oliver Butler; he made his name with The Debate Society, but recently he’s branched out to much success, both on this and his stunning work for the Vineyard’s production of Jordan Harrison’s The Amateurs (pulling off THAT mid-play shift — those who’ve seen it will know what I’m talking about, and those who haven’t still get to experience the surprise for themselves — requires a deft directorial hand at creating a tone that could encompass such different dramaturgical worlds). Schreck’s play feels like the stuff Pulitzers are made of; I can’t remember such a probing exploration of the personal ramifications of the political Constitution. What better way to reflect how much texts dictate the production that is America than through a play that constantly deviates from its own text?

–I’m loving this trend of theatres combining forces with The Women’s Project. And in a production directed by Leigh Silverman? Sign me up for Hurricane Diane!

–I wasn’t the biggest fan of Martyna Majok’s queens at LCT3 this season, but I still believe a Pulitzer is in her future. Perhaps it’ll be for Sanctuary City (a resonant title for obvious reasons).

–Speaking of the Pulitzer, Anna Deavere Smith is in desperate need of one, and her next project will conclude NYTW’s season.

–Oh, and just for good measure, NYTW announced that their FOLLOWING season will commence with two more plays in Mfoniso Udofia’s The Ufot Cycle. They previously produced two other plays in this developing 9-play cycle about one Nigerian-American family. If she stays the course, it’s shaping up to be a monumental theatrical achievement on the level of August Wilson’s The Pittsburgh Cycle. Hallowed company, and another Pulitzer no-brainer.

Seems like New York Theatre Workshop is going after Playwrights Horizons’ Pulitzer crown! The healthy competition is more than welcome, because in the end, everyone wins.

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