What Is About Off-Broadway

Once you’ve heard the beat of dancing feet on 42nd Street, keep heading west – to a block so chockablock with stages it’s known as Theatre Row.

Time was, no one with reputable intentions would venture too far west in sleazy Times Square beyond the brightly lit arcades of the big Broadway theaters. These days, though, some of the city’s most exciting drama is staged on what was until recently an especially seedy strip of 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth avenues. Former sex clubs and massage parlors are now home to almost a dozen Off-Broadway theaters such as the Acorn and the Beckett. (Off-Broadway is a term invented to confuse just about anyone – it refers to theaters that seat between 99 and 500 patrons and has nothing to do with geographic location, though most Off-Broadway stages happen to be outside the theater district we think of as Broadway.) Several theaters on Theatre Row mount the productions of Playwrights Horizons, committed to the work of contemporary American playwrights. The block also has a suitably dramatic restaurant, the legendary Chez Josephine, where Jean-Claude Baker recreates the 1930s Paris of his adoptive mother, Josephine Baker.

Farther Off-Broadway

Two other Off-Broadway venues, a little further afield, also ensure a good night at the theater. Hair, A Chorus Line, and some of the other most exciting plays of the past 45 years have emerged from the Public Theater (425 Lafayette St, tel: 212-260-2400, www.publictheater.org) on Astor Place at the edge of the East Village. The Public is especially known for avant-garde drama and Shakespearian productions, staged in the outdoor Delacorte Theater in Central Park every summer. A Renaissance-style landmark that the Astor family, founders of the fur-trading empire, built in 1854 houses the Public’s five year-round stages and Joe’s Pub, a cabaret.

Les Mis and other blockbusters may pack Broadway houses to the rafters, but New York also nurtures excellent work that, as the old theater expression goes, will never play in Omaha. Modern and classic texts are given innovative interpretations by the Wooster Group (33 Wooster St, tel: 212-966-9796, www.thewoostergroup.org) at the Performing Garage, where productions often incorporate experimental uses of sound and video. La MaMa (74A E. 4th St, tel: 212-475-7710, www.lamama.org) has been presenting original performance pieces from around the world for almost 50 years, establishing itself as the beachhead of experimental theaters and a major force in presenting works by new playwrights.

Way Off-Broadway

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (451 Fulton St and other nearby venues, Brooklyn, tel: 718-636-7100, www.bam.org) was founded in 1861, making it America’s oldest continually running performing arts center, and over the years has welcomed such legends as Enrico Caruso. These days, BAM is best known for its innovative productions, and, as if to demonstrate just how avant-garde BAM is, many are mounted in a former vaudeville house that has been dramatically deconstructed down to brick walls, peeling paint, and exposed masonry.

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