Off-Broadway Gains Ground

Article excerpt

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}. …