During the Fall 2016 season, three of the most celebrated playwrights in America are offering some acclaimed plays: Anna Deavere Smith, Lynn Nottage and Suzan-Lori Parks. That the three are black women tells the savvy New York theatergoer that their shows are all Off-Broadway.
Yes, Off-Broadway can be as starry as Broadway – this season’s shows Off-Broadway will feature David Oyelowo, Daniel Craig and his wife Rachel Weisz (in separate shows), Sutton Foster,, Tony Shalhoub, Saturday Night Live’s Jason Sudeikis.
But it’s instructive to realize that the work of Lynn Nottage, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Ruined,” has never been on Broadway. Her award-winning play, “Sweat,” is set to run this season at the Public Theater.
Similarly, MacArthur “genius” Anna Deavere Smith has been on Broadway only once, for two months, 22 years ago. Smith, who has made her mark in American theater by exhaustively researching one urgent issue after another, putting together solo shows in which she portrays the characters on all sides, has done it again. Her “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education” will be performed at Second Stage.
Suzan-Lori Parks, who won the Pulitzer for Top Dog/Underdog is the artist-in-resident this season at the Signature.
There are exciting offerings this season that one cannot imagine fitting on Broadway — Taylor Mac’s “24-Decade History of Popular Music “at St. Ann’s Warehouse; “The Gabriel’s,” Richard Nelson’s three-part series on the effect of the 2016 Presidential election on a single family, at the Public — and some that one can — the New Group’s revival of “Sweet Charity” and the Irish Rep’s of “Finian’s Rainbow.”
But it’s short-sighted to treat Off-Broadway in the same way as Broadway — as a collection of individual potential hits or misses. (See my Broadway 2016-2017 Preview Guide.) As most serious theatergoers will tell you, Off Broadway has far richer, more adventurous and more diverse offerings, at a lower price. Off-Broadway is also harder to get a handle on — more spread out, less publicized, and more numerous; there are some 200 theaters/theater companies, more than five times the number of Broadway theaters. What’s more, most of the Off-Broadway theaters present entire seasons of (mostly) rewarding shows. These theaters generally offer subscriptions and/or memberships for the season.
That is why I organize my Off-Broadway preview below largely by the theaters in which they are being produced, in order of my preference for these theaters (determined by such factors as their recent track record, the promise of the new season, and by the overall experience I’ve had with the theater.)
Still, I’ve put a red check mark — √ — besides a handful of shows opening in the Fall about which I’m especially excited, or intrigued, or at least notably hopeful. This can’t count as a recommendation, because I haven’t seen them yet. A few less promising-looking shows are sure to wind up more satisfying. Expect to be surprised.
(The asterisk *, explained more fully at the bottom, indicates those theatrical empires that are both on and Off Broadway.)
416 W. 42nd St. Twitter: @PHNYC
Annie Baker’s “The Flick” is one of six plays that originated at Playwrights Horizons that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The theater offers new plays and musicals that are consistently worthwhile, in an environment that feels dedicated both to the theater artists and the theatergoers.
August 20 – October 2. Opens September 12.
Julia Cho’s new play focuses on food. A man who shares a bowl of berries, a young woman who falls in love; a mother who prepares a bowl of soup to keep her son from leaving home; and a son who cooks a meal for his dying father.
September 30 – November 13. Opens October 24.
After another breakup, Nate resorts to astrology. In this new play by Adam Bock, “the answer he receives, when it comes, is shockingly obvious — and totally unpredictable.”
November 11 – December 23. Opens December 6.
In Dan LeFranc’s comedy of anxiety and awkward neighbors, the residents of Rancho Viejo drift from one gathering to the next, wrestling life’s grandest themes while fending off existential despair — set against the lustful, yearning strains of a distant bolero.
The Light Years by the Debate Society
Bella: An American Tall Tale, Book, Music, and Lyrics by Kirsten Childs
THE PUBLIC THEATER
425 Lafayette Street. Twitter: @PublicTheaterNY
Having originated both Hamilton and Fun Home, the Public is on a roll, the latest of many in the successful downtown empire that Joe Papp created half a century ago. The Public is so popular these days that members have been complaining that their membership doesn’t guarantee tickets to the Public shows they want to see.
Public Works’ Twelfth Night
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage, and songwriter Shaina Taub team up to present this Shakespeare comedy with professional actors such as Jose Lana and Nikki James and some 200 community members.
What Did You Expect?
September 10-October 9
The second in the three play cycle by Richard Nelson, “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family.” The first play in the cycle, Hungry, opened March 4, which is the date in which it is set.
October 4 – November 6
Rachel Weisz and Corey Stoll star in a revival of David Hare’s play about Susan Traherne, a fiercely intelligent British secret agent flown into France during the second world war, who has trouble adjusting in the years after the war.
October 18 – November 27
The much-praised play by Lynn Nottage, getting its New York premiere, about a group of friends who have spent their lives sharing drinks, secrets and laughs while working together on the line of a factory floor. But when layoffs and picket lines begin to chip away at their trust, the friends find themselves pitted against each other in the hard fight to stay afloat. “Sweat,” winner of this year’s prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for a play by a woman, is the result of two years of research in Reading, Pennsylvania, which the U.S. Census Bureau proclaimed the poorest city in America.
√ Women of a Certain Age
November 4 – December 4
The third play, and culmination of, “The Gabriels” trilogy, which will be both set and open – and which the playwright will finish writing – on Election Day, November 8, 2016.
November 1 – December 4
The complicated legacies of the original Black Panther Party and the Young Lords are explored in a play developed and directed by Liesl Tommy (Eclipsed), and starring the ensemble known as Universes (Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and William Ruiz aka Ninja), in their Public Theater debut.
Tiny Beautiful Things
November 15 – December 31
Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) plays Sugar, an anonymous online advice columnist in a Vardalos’ stage adaptation of the book of the same name by Cheryl Strayed. Directed by Thomas Kail (Hamilton.)
Under the Radar Festival, 13th edition
January 4-15, 2017
Cutting-edge theater from around the U.S. and the world.
Joan of Arc: Into the Fire by David Byrne, directed by Alex Timbers
The Outer Space by Ethan Lipton
Latin History for Morons by John Leguizamo
Gently Down The Stream by Martin Sherman starring Harvey Fierstein
NEW YORK THEATER WORKSHOP
79 East 4th Street. Twitter: @NYTW79
NYTW got much attention last year for presenting David Bowie’s musical “Lazarus.” Its fare ranged from the innovative and tuneful — “Hadestown” — to the cutting edge and incomprehensible — “Fondly, Collette Richland”
Nat Turner in Jerusalem
September 7 – October 16
In August 1831, Nat Turner led a slave uprising that shook the conscience of the nation. Turner’s startling account of his prophecy and the insurrection was recorded and published by attorney Thomas R. Gray. NYTW 2050 Fellow Nathan Alan Davis makes his New York debut with a timely new play that imagines Turner’s final night in a jail cell in Jerusalem, Virginia, as he is revisited by Gray and they reckon with what has passed and what the dawn will bring.
November 22 – January 18, 2017
Sam Gold directs David Oyelowo (Selma) in the title role and Daniel Craig (Betrayal, Spectre) as Iago in Shakespeare’s tragedy.
The Object Lesson
Sojourners and Her Portmanteau
480 West 42nd Street. Twitter: @signaturetheatr
As the first New York theater to win the Regional Tony Award, the Signature now has some solid proof of what has been clear to its patrons for years. What has distinguished this theater is not only its track record, but its commitment to keep the price of all tickets for initial runs to $25.
With the recent expansion of both their facilities and their mission, some longtime subscribers have had to adjust to the introduction of work by more untested playwrights. This is the first season under new artistic director Paige Evans, who headed Lincoln Center’s LCT3 Signature’s founding artistic director James Houghton died in August.
Master Harold….and the Boys
October 18 – November 27. Opens November 7.
A revival of Athol Fugard’s play, directed by the playwright, about two black men and a young white boy who joke and dance together, “defying the brutalities of apartheid through their joyous love. But festering issues of family, race, and power are not so easy to ignore…”
The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World
Opens November 14.
Suzan-Lori Parks begins her Signature residency with a play that “explores and explodes archetypes of Black America with piercing insight and raucous comedy.”
Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
The Antipodes by Annie Baker
Venus by Suzan-Lori Parks
Marie and Rosetta
August 24 – October 2. Opens September 14.
Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis Marie star in this play by George Brant inspired by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the “queen of race records” who influenced everybody from Elvis Presley to Jimi Hendrix, but died forgotten. The play takes place during her first rehearsal with a young protégée, Marie Knight, preparing for a tour.
√ The Band’s Visit
November 11 – December 23. Opens December 18.
This musical with a book by Itamar Moses (Fortress of Solitude) and music by David Yazbek (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), and directed by David Cromer (Our Town), is an adaptation the 2007 film about an Egyptian Police Band that arrives in Israel to play a concert but is sent by mistake to a remote village in the middle of the desert.
LINCOLN CENTER THEATER*
The shows at Lincoln Center’s Off-Broadway venues are inexpensive (especially at the Claire Tow theater, where initial-run tickets cost $20) and often rewarding.
October 8 – November 20. Opens October 24.
A new play by Samuel D. Hunter (The Whale) about a Mormon missionary who has bought a one-way ticket to the Middle East, but is confronted by his sister, who doesn’t want him to leave.
The Babylon Line
November 10 – January 22. Opens December 5.
A play by Richard Greenberg about a writer from bohemian Greenwich Village who commutes to Levittown to teach a creative writing class that includes one student that reawakens his own artistic impulses.
ROUNDABOUT* LAURA PELS
The empire that is now Roundabout includes three Broadway theaters, and that’s where most of the attention is focused, mostly on star-studded revivals, especially musicals. But its fourth building houses two Off-Broadway theaters (one of them a tiny “Black Box” theater.) It is in its Off-Broadway facility that Stephen Karam’s The Humans originated, now transferred to Broadway, and (as of this writing) the only non-musical there.
Love, Love, Love
September 22 – December 18, 2016. Opens October 19.
A new play from Mike Bartlett (King Charles III, Cock.) “London, 1967. Beatlemania is in full effect, the “Me” generation is in its prime and Kenneth and Sandra are in a world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll….But what happens when they have babies of their own.”
October 7 – December 18. Opens November 2.
Jenny Rachel Weiner’s comedy about two people who meet from an online dating site, who are both pretending to be somebody else.
Address: The Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street. Twitter: @mcctheater
All The Ways to Say I Love You
September 6 – October 9
Judith Light stars in an hour-long solo play by Neil LaBute, portraying Mrs. Johnson, a high school English teacher and guidance counselor in a loving marriage. “As she recounts her experiences with a favored student from her past, Mrs. Johnson slowly reveals the truth that is hidden just beneath the surface details of her life.”
Ride the Cyclone
November 9 – December 18
“The Saint Cassian High School Chamber Choir will board the Cyclone roller coaster at 8:17pm. At 8:19 the front axle will break, sending them to their tragic demise. A mechanical fortune teller invites each to tell the story of a life interrupted”
CLASSIC STAGE COMPANY
136 East 13th Street Twitter: @ClassicStage
Dead Poets Society
October 27-December 11, 2016
Academy Award-winner Tom Schulman adapts his own screenplay for this play about an inspiring boarding school teacher, starring Jason Sudeikis.
MTC AT CITY CENTER*
131 West 55th Street Twitter: @MTC_NYC
This theater was publicly criticized for the lack of diversity in its season last year, criticism they seem to have taken to heart, judging from its Off-Broadway fare this time around.
Opens October 18
Sarah Jones (Bridge & Tunnel) portrays multiple characters in a new show inspired by the real-life experiences of people affected by the sex industry.
Opens October 25
The award-winning play by Qui Nguyen is a love story about a boy and girl who are refugees from the Vietnam War newly settled in a relocation camp inside Middle America.
√ Notes From The Field (Second Stage)
October 15 – December 11. Opens November 2.
Drawn from interviews with more than 200 people, Anna Deavere Smith explores the personal accounts of students, parents, teachers and administrators caught in America’s school-to-prison pipeline, which pushes minors from poor communities out of the classroom and into incarceration,
√ The 24-Decade History of Popular Music (St. Ann’s Warehouse)
September 15 – October 8.
Taylor Mac’s concerts chart a history of popular music and activism in America from the nation’s founding in 1776 to the present day. I’ve seen several installments. This is the first time he is putting it all together, including for one marathon 24-hour session.
Sweet Charity (The New Group)
November 2 – December 23, Opens November 20.
A revival on its 50th anniversary of the musical by Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, starring Sutton Foster as Charity Hope Valentine, the dancehall hostess, a role famously associated with Gwen Vernon and Shirley MacLaine.
This Day Forward (Vineyard Theatre)
November 3 – December 18. Opens November 21.
A comedy by Nicky Silver (The Lyons) about a woman who made a surprising confession on her honeymoon, causing all plans to fall apart. “Nearly 50 years later, her children wrestle with their past and a mother whose secrets are quickly fading along with her memory.”
Finian’s Rainbow (Irish Rep)
October 26 – December 18. Opens November 6.
Melissa Errico stars in a reprised revival (translation: the Irish Rep has done it before) of this 1947 musical by Burton Lane and Yip Harburg about an Irishman who steals a leprechaun’s pot of gold and escapes with his daughter to the Jim Crow South. The creative team intended this musical to be politically on the left, but its message feels nowadays something of an outdated muddle. The tunes, however, are terrific.
Always worth checking out: Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival which focuses on avant-garde experimental and European works.
Other companies worth checking out:
Rattlesticks Playwright Theater
There are also commercial shows put together by independent producers that appear in theaters for rent, such as:
Cherry Lane Theatre
Daryl Roth Theatre
Gym at Judson
Lucille Lortel Theatre
New World Stages
The Players Theatre
Snapple Theater Center
Theatre Row – The Acorn
Union Square Theater
*THE ASTERISK: Off-Broadway AND Broadway
*Just to complicate matters, several of the resident theaters also present shows on Broadway – Lincoln Center, Manhattan Theater Company (MTC), the Roundabout Theater Company., and starting this season, Second Stage Theatre, which has bought the Helen Hayes. Their Broadway offerings are listed in my Broadway 2016-2017 Preview Guide.
What Is Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway?
Off-Broadway theaters, by definition, have anywhere from 100 to 499 seats. If a theater has more seats than that, it’s a Broadway house. If it has fewer, it’s Off-Off Broadway.
There are some terrific Off-Off Broadway theaters, sometimes confused for Off-Broadway. These include (but are not limited to) The Flea, Labyrinth Theater, and LaMaMa ETC.
Monthly Calendar of Openings
Because there are so many shows Off-Off Broadway, and their runs are so limited, I include them in my monthly theater preview calendar (along with Broadway and Off Broadway openings) posted near the beginning of each month.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For more information about Off-Broadway, go to The League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers (aka The Off-Broadway League). This should not be confused with the Off-Broadway Alliance, which is a separate organization (though they should probably merge, no?)
What’s Off-Broadway Dough? Does that mean there’s not much of it? pic.twitter.com/KHH1kApUzb
— New York Theater (@NewYorkTheater) September 4, 2016