5 really good off-Broadway shows

Strong shows and good acting are on display this spring in some of New York's smaller theaters. 

Courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic
'Black Beauty,' Red Bridge Arts & Traverse Theatre Company.

Off-Broadway is in full bloom this spring.

I was asked this month to write a story recommending five off-Broadway shows. To do this, I went to 15 different shows – and I really liked what I saw. 

For some theatergoers, the chief charm of off-Broadway is that its tickets often sell at a fraction of Broadway prices. (Off-Broadway shows play in houses with seats of less than 500; off-off-Broadway in houses of less than 100.) But what appeals to me about off-Broadway is the chance to enjoy memorable performances and strong writing on smaller stages with less elaborate scenic effects. Some shows shine all the more brightly in such settings and that was certainly true of the shows on this list.

Courtesy of Jeremy Daniel
Jessica Hecht (l.) and Ben Edelman in a scene from Lincoln Center Theater's production of "Admissions."

1. All the performances in Joshua Harmon’s Admissions at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. New-house Theater are excellent, but Ben Edelman’s especially stands out. In a blistering soliloquy, he rejects the pressure from his liberal-leaning parents to apply to an Ivy League college because he feels he has an unfair advantage over less connected and privileged students. Ironically, Ben’s parents – one is head of admissions, the other headmaster at a prestigious prep school – are at the same time fighting to diversify their student body with more minority enrollments. Broadway veterans Jessica Hecht and Andrew Garman are also brilliant as the prep school administrators. (Closes April 29)

2. Another extremely hard-hitting play about children and schools is Playwrights Horizons’ production of This Flat Earth, which takes place in the aftermath of a school shooting. Written by Lindsey Ferrentino, the play leaves you feeling great compassion for families whose children weren’t killed or wounded. Lucas Papaelias could not be more perfect as the blue-collar father of a young girl who can’t understand why adults don’t stop school shootings. Cassie Beck, Ella Kennedy Davis, Lynda Gravátt, and Ian Saint-Germain are all wonderful. (Closes April 29)

Courtesy of Grace Merriman
Brilliant Traces stars Black Merriman (l.) and Alyssa May Gold (r.).

3. Brilliant Traces, by Cindy Lou Johnson, which was recently at The WorkShop Theater, is about a man living in a remote cabin in Alaska who gets a surprise visitor from Arizona. (Though this production has closed, it is currently one of the most frequently produced plays in the United States.) The comedic drama begins with a bang: A young woman in a wedding dress opens the cabin door one blustery night. Alyssa May Gold played the bride and Blake Merriman the hermit in compelling performances. They become locked in a verbal duel, revealing the pathos and poignancy of their pasts. (Closed March 4)

4. Avenue Q is just as funny and engaging today as when it first opened to enthusiastic reviews in 2003. It is now playing off-Broadway at New World Stages with much lower ticket prices just blocks from its Broadway location. The musical follows the story of puppet Princeton, who recently graduated from college and now lives on a ramshackle street in New York City called Avenue Q. Princeton’s adventures with puppets such as Kate Monster and humans are affectionately told with heartfelt, humorous dialogue and songs. One of the play’s themes is that real friends can rely on each other. The music is by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and the book (dialogue) is by Jeff Whitty. (Running indefinitely)

5. Black Beauty at The New Victory Theater is based on an 1877 novel by Anna Sewell about a horse who has experienced great cruelty and much kindness. This production gives the story new life by casting it as a tale told by two out-of-work actors who find the old novel and embark on a pantomime version of it. In the pantomime, a big rain boot becomes Black Beauty and a small boot symbolizes another horse, allowing kids to use their imaginations to visualize the story. Judging from the laughter and applause, the children who saw it on the night that I was there simply loved it. (Closes March 25)

I also really liked “Ajijaak on Turtle Island” at the Ellen Stewart Theatre and Ilia Volok in a bravura performance in “Diary of a Madman,” by Nikolai Gogol, at the American Theater of Actors. Both have since closed, which is a reminder for readers to confirm that a show is still playing as off-Broadway shows often have short life spans, no matter how good the reviews.

And here’s a final tip for those interested in off-Broadway shows: A way to cut the prices further is to become a member of the respected theater organization Theater Extras (Theaterextras.com). For $99 a year (plus a $4.50 processing fee per ticket), you get two seats for a number of shows (Broadway and off-Broadway) of your choice.

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