Off-Broadway gains ground

If you're looking for meaty drama - or even old-fashioned comedy - it's hard to beat New York City's off-Broadway theater.

Long hailed for its avant-garde playwriting and acting, in recent years, off-Broadway has increasingly eclipsed Broadway in the multiplicity of its mainstream drama and comedy, many theater insiders say.

But beware. Just as playwright Sam Shepard's early work shocked and offended people 25 years ago, some of today's off-Broadway fare isn't for the fainthearted.

Tracy Letts's "Killer Joe,'' about a policeman who moonlights as a hit man, is currently the hottest play off-Broadway. But some theatergoers have been so disturbed by its nudity and violence they've left at intermission.

Yet from Soho up to Broadway and 86th Street, more than 50 plays - and some musicals - dot Manhattan's off-Broadway landscape. In addition, there are at least that many off-off-Broadway plays and at times, like during the city's annual summer "fringe festival,'' a great many more.

Experts say off-Broadway's dramatic upsurge is partly propelled by the Great White Way's steady demise as a mecca for drama, and even comedy, over the last several decades.

"With occasional exceptions, Broadway has now become the home of 6-, 8- and even 20-million dollar musicals and megamusicals. Off-Broadway is where the plays are,'' says Stuart Lane, who produced last season's acclaimed revival of the musical "1776,'' and co-owns Broadway's Palace Theater.

One major reason is that it costs far less to produce plays off-Broadway.

"These days, the costs are so extraordinarily high that unless you get incredible reviews like 'Art' (currently at Broadway's Royale Theater), become a so-called 'must see' or have a big, big star in your cast, it's virtually impossible to get even a modest return for investors on a straight play, let alone musicals,'' says Arthur Cantor, another veteran Broadway producer.

"Off-Broadway's renaissance really started when Edward Albee's 'Three Tall Women' was done there four years ago and won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Drama,'' says Shirley Herz, a veteran press agent for Broadway and off-Broadway shows.

Simply defined, an off-Broadway play or musical is in a theater with 100 to 499 seats, while off-off-Broadway shows usually have fewer than 99 seats. To be eligible for a Tony Award, Broadway's highest award, a drama or comedy has to be housed in a theater of 500 seats or more.

Ticket prices differ widely. Depending on the show, off-off-Broadway seats can sell for as little as $2 to $12 with special discounts, while Broadway musicals can reach $80.

There are actually well over 100 up-to-99-seat off-off-Broadway venues scattered throughout Manhattan. "My guess is that there are some 750 to 1,000 off-off-Broadway producers, even if it's just one guy and a friend,'' says John Chatterton, publisher of the monthly "off-off-broadway review [oobr]."

Meanwhile, Stewart Lane heads the Producers Network, a group trying to find financially feasible ways to inject new life into a Broadway that has become dominated by big, splashy spectaculars like "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King," and "Miss Saigon."

For one thing, the Producers Network is trying to promote the practice of off-peak theater ticket pricing, similar to airlines.

The downside is peak prices for some shows could soar. "But even this downside has an upside,'' Mr. Lane says. "It could help eliminate illegal scalping of some tickets for $150 or more and let the shows' producers get this money instead of the scalpers,'' he says.

"Similarly, you might be able to buy the best seats for some Broadway shows for as little as $25 or even $20 - if they're bought well in advance, like the airlines,'' the producer added.

"By the same token, wouldn't it be wonderful to get off-Broadway seats for less than a movie?"

But extensive, computer-driven off-peak pricing is at least a few years off. And, right now, the most reasonable prices for the widest variety of shows are to be found off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway.

Here are capsule reviews of some of off-Broadway's most highly touted current productions. Please check the latest local listings for dates and times.

"Over the River and Through the Woods," by Joe DiPietro. (John Houseman Theater, 450 West 42nd St.) This warm-hearted comedy about a young man trying to shed the apron strings of his Italian-American grandparents will make you laugh and cherish your own family all the more.

"Sally and Tom," a musical with book (dialogue) and lyrics by Fred Newman, music by Annie Roboff. (Castillo Theatre, 500 Greenwich St.) Based on historical accounts of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, "Sally and Tom" is a diamond in the off-off-Broadway rough. Roboff's music sometimes soars with lyrical beauty.

"Killer Joe.'' (Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam St.) Behind the nudity and violence of Tracy Letts's black comedy, there beats an American playwright with a highly promising future.

"Wit.'' (Union Square Theater, 100 E. 17th St.) Kathleen Chalfant, one of America's greatest stage actresses, plays a physician who battles a life-threatening disease with courage and, you guessed it, wit in Margaret Edson's inspiring play.

"Collected Stories.'' (Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher St.) Don't walk, fly, to see the great stage actress Uta Hagen in this stellar revival of Donald Margulies's drama about a college professor and her overly ambitious student.

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