Off Broadway -- happy birthday to a state of mind

NINETEEN eighty-five has been declared, more or less officially, the 30th anniversary of the theatrical anti-institution called Off Broadway. It was in 1955 that the Village Voice -- a journalistic anti-institution -- first awarded ``Obies'' to the best Off Broadway achievements of the year. But Circle-in-the-Square was already producing Tennessee Williams's ``Summer and Smoke'' in 1952, and a case could be argued for making Off Broadway more like 70 years old, pushing its beginnings back to the days of the Provincetown Players in Greenwich Village, staging Eugene O'Neill's early one-act plays just after World War I.

Off Broadway is as hard to define geographically as it is chronologically. Greenwich Village more often than not has been its home. But Off Broadway productions have raised the curtain from one end of Manhattan to the other -- and, of course, on lots of stages without curtains at all.

If Off Broadway cannot be defined by time or place, how about repertoire? Alas, repertoire hardly clarifies things. What pigeonhole can contain, on the one hand, Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg, and on the other hand, Brecht, Beckett, and Ionesco? Not to forget Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, and David Mamet.

Clearly, Off Broadway -- this staging ground of revivals, European avant-gardists, and native experimentalists -- is a state of mind.

There can be no exact demarcation of the ever-recurring impulse to restore to theater a certain playful exuberance -- to assert the primary value of fantasy over realism, to rip apart the well-made play in favor of antic improvisation, to use the theater to criticize not only the tame, false side of itself but the tame, false side of society.

Off Broadway put fire back in the theater, and some of that fire -- although domesticated and carried neatly on silver candlesticks, as it were -- found its way to Broadway and elsewhere. Dustin Hoffman, Carol Burnett, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Larry Hagman are a few of the players who began in the black, 199-seat cellars of Off Broadway and made it to the gold-and-red-plush world of Broadway, and on to Hollywood. Brecht's ``Mother Courage'' and Ionesco's ``Rhinoceros'' even found angels to finance them on Broadway -- at least when these suddenly prestigious playwrights were reinforced by star names like Anne Bancroft and Zero Mostel on the marquee.

There is no saying how many regional theaters were founded on the premise of Off Broadway -- that an audience exists, craving more nourishment than conventional Broadway hits can provide.

It is customary, after praising Off Broadway for its invention, its honest anger, its salty wit, to deplore its pretentiousness, its sometimes-amateurish standards, its whimsical self-indulgence, its propensity to shock for shock's sake. All true -- on both sides of the case.

But in America the frontier justifies itself by its irresistible energy, and Off Broadway has been the frontier of the American theater.

Thirty years is a long time for a frontier to maintain its cutting edge.

About the time Off Broadway was beginning to become a force the drama critic Louis Kronenberger, looking at Broadway, complained that audiences of taste were abandoning theater for films.

One hears no end of laments today for the decline and fall of the theater. Broadway is reporting its worst season in a decade as ticket prices go up, the general quality of scripts goes down, and movie and television screens continue to make the stage seem as old-fashioned as . . . well, print. And some of the concern Kronenberger showed for Broadway is now directed toward Off Broadway as well.

But theater, like the perennially mourned-for novel, has deep roots and serves unique needs. As with the shadows on Plato's caves, we can live just so long with our electronic images and then we long for the drama that can be supplied only by human presence.

The strongest impressions of theater are as powerful as life itself. One theatergoer can remember an Off Off Broadway production of Pirandello's ``Henry IV'' -- in Cambridge, Mass., to be exact. The turns of character dazzled, like prisms reflected in a mirror. The dialogue elegantly skewered hypocrisy, with a passion. All aspects of the staging fixed that evening in the mind and heart as the most vivid -- the most real -- event of the theatergoer's 23rd year.

This power, inherent in all theater, may be dampened. But our need for it guarantees its revival, as it revived 30 years ago in the form of Off Broadway, putting the celebration back into the dramatic act.

Call it Off Off Off Broadway, or what you will. But in any event, bring on the next Pirandello for some other 23-year-old. Bring on the next little renaissance. A Wednesday and Friday column

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