This season’s productions of 21st Century Bluesand Party Face represent two sides of the same coin, reflecting the current state of the commercial landscape for off-Broadway plays.
Regardless of their subjective quality — is there such a thing as objective quality? — they both deserve to be celebrated, for they fill a variety of voids in New York’s theatre scene.
The fact that starless straight plays on Broadway are rarely successful is basically common knowledge by now, but conditions might be even more dire off the main stem. Off-Broadway companies are thankfully able to compensate for these gaps thanks to the financial net provided by their nonprofit designation, but they leave very little air for commercial ventures to breathe off-Broadway. At no fault of their own, the prestige — and thus the attention — are showered upon these famed institutions, often at the expense of others vying for the same market. Plus, their season subscriptions provide guaranteed audiences, many of whom allot a majority of their theatergoing funds towards those subscriptions.
Without this cushion, commercial ventures off-Broadway are a near-farcical gamble almost not worth taking, thus the reason some for-profit houses are giving themselves over to nonprofit companies. Luckily, some enterprising (or foolhardy…or both) producers still strive to reverse this trend, and I will keep supporting these enterprises because they’re admirably trying to combat an untenable situation, even if they generally don’t conform to my personal artistic taste. In fact, those might be two related ideas.
There are of course long-running shows off-Broadway, but those opened in more favorable economic climates (with less competition to boot), and by now their time-earned name recognition prevents useful comparisons to newer openings. Regarding the latter, there are a handful whose artistic risks match their financial ones (Sleep No More, In & Of Itself, Sweeney Todd at the Barrow Street Theatre, etc.), but few can be considered conventional theatre.
I tend to prefer this unconventional fare — when you see as much as I do, a fascinating failure with novelty usually trumps the same old boring competence — but none can really be considered traditional. This season’s Afterglow looks like an exception to this rule, because it IS more of a straightforward play than these other examples. Though its quality is an obvious factor in its success, everyone knows that quality alone doesn’t necessarily sell. Afterglow benefitted hugely — pun intended — from its press-garnering male nudity, which attracts the second largest piece that is the pie of New York’s off-Broadway playgoing community: my beloved gays.
The biggest piece of that pie, however, explains 21st Century Blues and Party Face. Though I obviously respect any work that may expand my conception of theatre’s definition, there should also be a place for more straightforward theatre, especially to serve audiences who’d rather not wade into murkier waters.
And that’s the role that 21st Century Blues and Party Face can nobly serve. Neither play reinvents the wheel by any stretch of the imagination. Quite the contrary; their premises are basically the bedrock of American Drama: the dinner party. They both casually and comfortably subvert the origins of the genre in the same way, a cue to the fact that they’re appealing to the bread-and-butter demographic of New York theatre: women of a certain age (and their hubbies). Each play depicts a cocktail party reunion between family and friends, all women of a certain age, with laughs and cheers galore.
At least, that’s the intent. My audiences seemed to enjoy themselves, even if the derivative dramaturgical simplicity bored me. But who am I to be the curmudgeon in the room when a straight play was bringing people joy for a fraction of Broadway’s prices, and in a theatre a fraction of their distancing sizes (especially if you don’t want to shell out your 401K for prime seats)?
But the smartest aspect of Party Face had nothing to do with anything on stage; that distinction goes to when that stage was being used. Unlike a vast majority of theatres that inexplicably adhere to the same general performance schedules, Party Face’s producers wisely opted to throw in Thursday matinees, almost unheard of in New York City…even though the theatre industry is driven by two groups of people: tourists and the aforementioned older gals. Those tourists might have free time in their schedules at any time on any day, and may pick a show simply because it’s playing when others aren’t. And those grand dames might be retired and tired, especially when the curtain comes down past their normal bedtimes; Wednesday matinees are filled with blue hair for a reason — who wants to stay up that late to see a show when an earlier time is available (I know this 27-year-old doesn’t!)?
And yet, Party Face was probably one of the only offerings open for business every Thursday afternoon. Why are producers potentially leaving money on the table?! I understand not taking away weekend showtimes, but why not play around with weeknights and weekdays?! No matter if you’re New York’s biggest or smallest theatre, it’s good business, especially in an industry always starving for more business.
And clearly commercial off-Broadway is famished. There’s a reason that both 21st Century Blues and Party Face were mounted in but not by nonprofit theatres (the Signature and the Manhattan Theatre Club, respectively). Producing plays in your own house is even riskier than leasing out those spaces to others; let them figure out how to make money!
So props to these two productions for trying. You weren’t my favorites, but I welcome your existence.