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Roaming through time and the world with Off Broadway's new season

By John Beaufort / October 4, 1982

New York

In terms of activity, Off Broadway has been far outpacing Broadway this season. The situation is not unprecedented. The cause is partly economic. Entertainments that might once have risked Broadway can be mounted for much less money in the theater's outskirts. Off Broadway has become the natural habitat for the offbeat, the small musical, the play with perhaps a special appeal, the lesser-scaled, and the occasionally experimental.

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There is sometimes the hope that an Off Broadway success can be transferred to the main stem. Currently such transfers include ''A Chorus Line,'' ''Crimes of the Heart,'' ''Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,'' ''Pump Boys and Dinettes,'' and ''Torch Song Trilogy.''

Recent Off Broadway arrivals have demonstrated again that, although we constant playgoers may not always travel in Keats's ''realms of gold,'' we do get around. In the course of several such outings, I have visited the worlds of sports, 17th-century Mexico, Berlin in the 1920s, and the state of Tennessee (Williams, that is). Williams play

a/k/a Tennessee, which closed after a very brief run at the South Street Theater, took a leisurely, two-hour excursion through Williams country - a terrain of fragile, vulnerable, and frequently troubled people. The retrospective collage, subtitled ''Facts and Fictions of Thomas Lanier Williams, '' consisted of play excerpts, poetry, and reminiscences. The collaboration honored the playwright and did credit to his interpreters.

Maxim Mazumdar, who devised the program, respectfully selected the principal subjects of Williams portraiture, from Amanda Wingfield of ''The Glass Menagerie'' and Blanche DuBois of ''A Streetcar Named Desire'' to Alexandra Del Lago of ''Sweet Bird of Youth.'' The anthology also took due note of the playwright's comic spirit - his gift for irony (not forgetting self-mockery), and the humorous observation of such minor pieces as ''The Case of the Crushed Petunias'' and ''A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot.''

In the casual biographical fragments, Mr. Mazumdar recorded Williams's early struggles to establish himself as a writer, followed by his sudden success with ''The Glass Menagerie'' in 1945 (he later referred to ''the catastrophe of success''). The script touched on the playwright's bouts with Hollywood, drug and alcohol addiction, his prolonged mental breakdown, his homosexuality, and the wounding critical rejection that followed so much acclaim.

With Mr. Mazumdar serving mostly as an unassuming but authoritative stand-in for Williams, fellow players Carrie Nye and J. T. Walsh populated the stage of the South Street Theater with numerous characters from the author's plays, stories, and reminiscences. The performance, directed by Albert Takazauckas, displayed the kind of dedication that best serves the characteristic Williams strengths - lyricism, wry humor, melancholy, and compassion. Peter Harvey's neat but unpretentious scenery, lighted by Mal Sturchio, contributed to this appreciative guided tour through the states and stages of Tennessee Williams. The Anastasia mystery

Multiple-role playing in quite another zone of time and place makes its own histrionic demands in I Am Who I Am, at the Perry Street Theater in Greenwich Village. British dramatist Royce Ryton is revisiting some of the scenes of a mystery that has intrigued historians, fictionists, and the general public since the 1920s. Mr. Ryton is reconsidering the case of one of the many women who claimed to be Princess Anastasia, asserting that she had survived the execution of the Romanov royal family of Russia by the communists in 1917.

The Anastasia of the 1954 Guy Bolton adaptation of Marcelle Maurette's romantic drama satisfied the Dowager Empress of her legitimacy, only to vanish. Mr. Ryton takes a different tack. The Dowager Empress and several other royal relatives (played variously and adroitly by Lucille Patton and Jeff Abbott) concur in recognizing Anastasia until they hear about the 22 million rubles in gold the Czar supposedly deposited in British banks. ''I Am Who I Am'' ends with the mystery still unsolved.