Off-Broadway invades Times Square

Move over Broadway. Make way for off-Broadway.

For decades, several prominent off-Broadway theaters, including The American Place Theater on 46th Street, the Sanford White-designed Lamb's Theater on 44th Street, and the nonprofit Playwrights Horizons on 42nd Street, have been staples of the Times Square area.

In the last several years, however, along with a spate of new theme restaurants and office towers, some two-dozen off-Broadway and smaller off-off-Broadway theaters have sprung up in the 14-block area stretching from 40th to 54th Street and from 6th to 8th Avenue, traditionally the home of the larger and more ornate Broadway playhouses.

Generally speaking, Broadway theaters seat 500 or more patrons. Off-Broadway shows are in theaters ranging from 99 to 499 seats, and off-off-Broadway in spaces with under 99 seats. For decades, New York's off-Broadway theater was concentrated primarily in the Greenwich Village area. This is, in fact, where "The Fantas- ticks," the world's longest-running musical, is still playing at the Sullivan Street Theater after nearly 40 years. There have been, however, a few off-Broadway playhouses scattered around other parts of the city for many years. These include theaters in various basements on Manhattan's Upper East Side and Upper West Side north of Times Square.

The redevelopment and cleanup of once-troubled Times Square, a sharp reduction in crime, an upsurge of tourists, and the success of the half-price TKTS booth at 47th Street and Broadway, however, have contributed to the growing presence of off-Broadway theater on Broadway.

"Everybody's trying to find and create off-Broadway theater spaces in Times Square," says off-Broadway producer Joe Corcoran, who is behind three shows in the Times Square vicinity - "Tony n' Tina's Wedding," "Finnegan's Farewell", and "Late Nite Catechism" - "because this is where all the people are."

"Tony n' Tina's Wedding," a long-running interactive comedy, was on the verge of closing in its location several miles away in Greenwich Village until it moved to St. Luke's Church on West 46th Street last year. Attendance picked up substantially.

Some theater observers note that the high quality of off-Broadway plays now being produced in the Times Square area is dramatically underscoring their presence in the traditional "Broadway grid."

"For years we've had half-a-dozen theaters on 'theater row' on West 42nd Street, with its 99-seat theaters, and a number of others like the American Place, the Lamb's, and Mint theaters," says Carol Levine, president of Kelron, a largely off-Broadway theater advertising and promotion company. "They're getting attention because they are doing wonderful work."

Some off-Broadway managers worry that the increasing attractiveness of Times Square as a corporate, restaurant, and off-Broadway magnet will raise rents, keeping off-Broadway theaters from moving to the area in the future. "I would be loath to be anywhere else but Times Square," says Jonathan Bank, the Mint's artistic director. When the Mint moved to 43rd Street in 1992, Bank says, "The question, 'Is the area safe?' came up all the time."

No longer. "Location is a factor in drawing an audience.... There's also a credibility that comes with just being in Times Square," he says. "We rent our theater when we're not using it, and the demand is very high. It's considered to be an extremely desirable location by producers who want mainstream recognition."

One highly respected nonprofit theater company didn't target Times Square specifically, but nevertheless found itself there. "For five years, the Second Stage Theater Company was looking for a space all over New York," says veteran Broadway press agent Richard Kornberg, who represents Second Stage and the musical "Rent." "It turned out the best place they found happened to be in Times Square." A $4-million renovation of the building required a major fund-raising drive.

"Times Square is becoming more attractive to theaters and theatergoers because people aren't frightened by Times Square; they're encouraged by Times Square," Mr. Kornberg adds.

Off-Broadway in Broadway territory

Below are a few examples of off-Broadway shows in or near to the Times Square area.

The Voysey Inheritance Mint Theater, 311 West 43rd St., (212) 315-0231, www.botz.com/mint/ This turn-of-the-century, superbly acted, well-made play is delightful fun even if it seems a bit too long.

Tony n' Tina's Wedding St. Luke's Church, 308 West 46th St., (212) 889-4300, www.TonyLovesTina.com If you haven't seen this interactive comedy, you're missing plenty of laughs.

Perfect Crime Duffy Theatre, 1553 Broadway (46th St.), (212) 307-4100 Relocated from another Times Square space, this long-running mystery has both thrills and laughs.

The Wild Party Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 West 55th Street at City Center, (212) 399-3000 Based on Joseph Moncure March's poem and set at, what else, a wild party in the 1920s. The uneven piece has show-stopping numbers, but contains strong adult content.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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