As Off Broadway reopens, “Off Broadway,” a play by Torrey Townsend, is streaming free online to warn people away from Off Broadway. It’s hard to conclude otherwise, given the two hour pile-up of racism, sexism, cluelessness, stupidity and outright criminal behavior by the leadership of the American National Theatre, aka ANT, a fictitious non-profit theater company that bears some unavoidable if superficial resemblance to such non-profit institutional theaters as the Roundabout.
But “Off Broadway” is billed not just as a “scathing critique” but as a “dark comic satire.” And if this play “presented” by Jeremy O. Harris and directed by Robert O’Hara is a blunt-force indictment, it still manages to entertain, thanks largely to a terrific cast.
Exhibit A is Dylan Baker. Nobody does villains more credibly than Baker, whose memorable bad guy roles have included pedophile, wife-murderer, KBG agent and The Lizard. He adds one more as Andy Martin, the business manager turned artistic director of ANT.
It is September, 2020 at the start of the play, and Andy is going to take over from founding artistic director Daryl Lependorf (a hilarious and mesmerizing Richard Kind) who is planning to retire at the end of the year because he has cancer, and he’s a drunk, and he’s losing his mind (he thinks he just had a conversation with the long-dead Edward Albee.) But the takeover is pushed up when a theater patron calls Daryl a “morally insensitive, artistically incompetent fraud,” which causes Daryl to drop dead.
When ANT’s slick publicist Garrick Chauveaux (Jason Butler Harner), in preparing a press release about the transition, asks Andy to articulate his “artistic vision,” Andy is struck dumb. To draw him out, Andy is then asked what attracted him to the theater, but he remains at a loss for words. This counts as the most subtle slam on the character as the play unfolds in a series of Zoom conference calls among the staff over the next few months. With the theater shut down because of the pandemic, and more than $2.6 million in the hole, he has “furloughed” 80 percent of the staff (“Everybody who’s been furloughed won’t be coming back”) , and won’t be giving raises to those who remain, at least not to development director Betty (Becky Ann Baker) because “she’s married, so she doesn’t need the paycheck.” Andy comes up with a “provocative” first in-person production to reopen the theater: “Othello” starring Al Pacino in blackface (with a Black actor playing Iago in whiteface.) “Al Pacino is dripping with money. And if we do it on stage, we can also stream it, so the number of tickets skyrocket.” Marla (Jessica Frances Dukes) is dumbfounded, and objects. The only Black member of the staff, she was the literary manager but has been promoted to associate producer (“good for optics,” Andy had remarked.) Andy defends the production using words like “Brechtian” and “gestalt,” and defends himself against accusations of racism, saying the theater gave a “very strong statement” about “the Black Life Matters movement.” Marla signs off in frustration. “Time to look for a new associate producer,” Betty says.
If Andy’s treatment of Marla is patronizing, Steph (Kara Wang), the only other staff member of color, gets it far worse: Andy sexually assaults her.
One can interpret the ratcheting up of Andy’s villainy as playwright Torrey Townsend’s seeing little worth in the world of Off Broadway theater, or at least little hope for its changing. He actually says this explicitly through Marla: “This place is not going to change,” she says in a Zoom call with Steph. “This entire industry is built on white folk in their mediocrity. That is literally the foundation of American theater from its founding.”
How should a theater lover react to such a condemnation?
“Off Broadway” begins with a previous Zoom call between Marla and Steph, in which Marla complains about the “ten billionth” production of “All My Sons” by Arthur Miller that the theater is about to mount, directed by an ancient British director that Steph didn’t realize was still alive. This has a more direct correspondence with a specific reality than much else in “Off Broadway” — there was a production of “All My Sons” (by a British director) in 2008 and another (by Roundabout) in 2019 — except for one thing: They were both produced on Broadway. The last Off Broadway production of “All My Sons” was in 1997, albeit also by Roundabout. So a question: Is the title of Townsend’s play really fair?