Author David Cote
The Lights aren’t so bright on Broadway these days, where the economic downtown has resulted in more than a dozen closings and a significant dip in box-office for all but a handful of blockbusters. This spring, producers will roll out nearly 20 shows to fill the void, but no one is taking any creative risks. A quick scan of coming attractions reveals an unusual number of celebrities—Will Ferrell, Jeremy Irons, Jane Fonda, James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Lauren Graham and Angela Lansbury—crowding the marquees. But even that star wattage won’t guarantee sold-out houses. Everybody is holding their breath and waiting for the good times to return.
Between 2000 and 2008, Broadway enjoyed a sustained boom, witnessing the rebirth of American musical comedy (The Producers, Avenue Q) and innovative, teen-oriented fare (Spring Awakening, Wicked). Shows ran longer, and annual box-office receipts topped $1 billion—a windfall due in part to inflated ticket prices. But while a couple might have been happy to plunk down $250 or more for orchestra seats at a hit show in previous years, purse strings are drawn tighter this year. Still, there’s more to theater than the several-block radius around Times Square. As every trouper likes to say: The show must go on—no matter where in the world you may be. Here, five alternatives to the Great White Way.Dearborn St., 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org), one of the nation’s most respected regional houses. In March the Goodman presents Magnolia, a civil-rights-era drama (inspired by Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard) from Regina Taylor, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, who also helmed the awesome August: Osage County, the sprawling, bitterly comic family drama that transferred to Broadway and won every award in sight.
August began its life Off-Loop, at the storied Steppenwolf Theatre Company (1650 N. Halsted St., 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org), a pioneering outfit that began in 1976 as the dream of John Malkovich, Gary Sinise and their actor cohorts. In March Steppenwolf will present its sure-to-be thought-provoking take on Art, Yasmina Reza’s 1994 comedy of friendship and good taste. While the theater often premieres new work, part of the fun is seeing how its fearless corps of actors will interpret tested material. Jones also strongly recommends The House Theater (1543 W. Division St., 773-251-2195, thehousetheatre.com), a young company with a penchant for vibrant physical-theater works. In March, House will be running Rose and the Rime, a surreal fable about a small Midwestern town trapped in perpetual winter. “To my mind, House Theater is one of the most exciting new companies to emerge recently,” says Jones. “It does a highly visual theater, which is also very emotional and rooted in pop culture. They’re a hot company, but still relatively small.” And if you’re really adventurous, Jones suggests you wander out of the mainstream and check out one of Chicago’s dozens of scrappy storefront theaters, where the budgets are low but passion runs high. Chicago’s city-funded DCA Theater (66 E. Randolph St., 312-742-8497, dcatheater.org).
Los Angeles | For all of its dominance by the major film studios, L.A. boasts scores of venues that are blissfully independent from the Hollywood machine. “There’s very little subsidy of the theater by the film and TV industry,” says Steven Leigh Morris, theater critic for the L.A. Weekly, “unless some execs get together to produce one particular show by a friend of theirs, which happens on occasion.” While you might expect actors and writers to try grabbing the attention of studio suits by programming movie-centric work, Morris says that rarely happens anymore, “because the critics here are so sick of those shows. After Speed-the-Plow, there’s not much else to say about the Industry. The Little Dog Laughed [Douglas Carter Beane’s breezy Tinseltown satire] earned its caché in New York. I’m not sure it would have done as well had it started here and tried to move east.”
The L.A. scene is composed of several parts: large touring barns for Broadway fare (Pantages Theatre); a handful of mid-size regional theaters such as South Coast Repertory, Pasadena Playhouse and Geffen Playhouse; and independent production companies that present actor showcases and one-off productions of new musicals they hope to tour with. Then there’s what Morris calls “the soul of the scene”—about a hundred or so troupes, based in small theaters, such as Theatre of NOTE, Circle X, The Actors’ Gang and Open Fist Theatre Company.
Stages may not be concentrated in pedestrian-friendly zones like Times Square, but theatergoers who don’t mind hitting the freeway will find a number of appealing options. The Ahmanson Theatre (135 N. Grand Ave., 213-628-2772, centertheatregroup.org) is presenting a limited run of Frost/Nixon (March 11–29) starring Stacy Keach. In the same theater complex, known as the Music Center, the smaller Mark Taper Forum is set to mount a revival of Pippin, the 1972 musical fantasy by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked). On Morris’ March short list is a Geffen Playhouse (10886 Le Conte Ave., 310-208-5454, geffenplayhouse.com) production of Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still, a timely work about ethics in photojournalism, from the Pulitzer-winning author of Dinner with Friends.
London | London and world-class theater are practically synonymous, given that this great foggy capital has been historic home to Shakespeare, Shaw and Pinter. “We’re blessed with a vibrant, living theatre tradition that is part of the DNA of the city,” says Mark Shenton, theatre critic for the Sunday Express. “Theater has been here for centuries and will be for centuries more, whatever the economic conditions. But we’re also cursed, because there’s a danger that we simply take it for granted.” You can be sure that no visitor would take for granted the robustness of London’s stages, which are heavily subsidized and feature some of the world’s finest thespians. Shenton identifies the major landmarks as the National Theatre, the Royal Court Theatre and several smaller but still excellent houses such as the intimate Menier Chocolate Factory and the Donmar Warehouse.
The National (South Bank, SE1 9PX, 44-207-452-3000, nationaltheatre.org.uk) is a must, easily accessed by a picturesque stroll over Waterloo Bridge overlooking the Thames. (While in South Bank, make time to visit the restored Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.) Don’t be put off by the National’s gray, bunker-like façade. Inside that blocky 1970s pile lives the heart of London theater. Three stages offer a repertory program of daringly eclectic stuff: revivals of classic drama and substantive new plays. History buffs will especially appreciate the National’s long-running War Horse. The epic story of a beast of burden and a young recruit trying to survive the horrors of WWI is a powerful examination of one of Europe’s darkest chapters.
The West End is London’s answer to Broadway. If you’re looking for a splashy attraction, Shenton recommends the musical version of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, an Australian import (priscillathemusical.com). “It combines two favored trends: a musical adapted from a well-known movie that also features a score of old pop hits,” he notes. “The original Sydney production blew me away with its charm and sincerity.” Shenton adds a note of advice: You can’t see everything, so don’t worry. And buy your tickets directly at the box office, where you’ll find the best deals. For an overview of the city’s varied offerings, check out Time Out or the London Theatre Guide (londontheatreguide.co.uk).
Washington, D.C. | Drama in the nation’s capital isn’t limited to the Senate floor. The major theaters in the area include the sprawling National Theatre, the Kennedy Center and Arena Stage, as well as smaller venues such as The Studio Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre and Theater J, the latter of which is dedicated to plays that explore the Jewish experience. One of the grandest—and most infamous—houses still stands: Ford’s Theatre, where in 1865 President Abraham Lincoln’s viewing of a comedy called Our American Cousin was cut short by an assassin’s bullet.
Now through March 15, Arena Stage (1800 S. Bell St., 202-488-3300, arenastage.org) is offering Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, his cryptic but compelling study of social dynamics among WASPy neurotics. At the National (1321 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., 800-447-7400, nationaltheatre.org), you can catch the tour of the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. A trip to D.C. wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the small, artistically bold Studio Theatre (1501 14th St., N.W., 202-332-3300, studiotheatre.org). Run by the enterprising impresario Joy Zinoman, the Studio cherry-picks some of the more interesting recent shows from New York and presents them in new, often improved versions for local audiences. Through March 22, catch Adam Bock’s deliciously dark satire The Receptionist, about a cheerful front-desk drone at a mysterious company that may be involved in torture. It’s a workplace comedy that shades gradually into an Orwellian horror story. That’s probably something Washingtonians can relate to.
On the musical side of the equation, you must schedule a visit to the Signature Theatre, a five-minute drive from D.C. in Arlington, VA. The Signature (4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA, 703-820-9771, sig-online.org) specializes in professional-grade revivals of classic musicals by the likes of Sondheim, Kander & Ebb and newer songwriters, such as Michael John LaChiusa. But it’s not all song and dance, there: the Signature also programs nonmusical comedy and drama. In March you’ll have a few more chances to catch Douglas Carter Beane’s frothy and campy Hollywood satire, The Little Dog Laughed, which closes March 8.
Tokyo | American performer John Oglevee has called Tokyo home for the last decade while studying the art of Noh, a rigorous and elegant theatrical form dating to the 1300s that blends music, dance and stylized (often very slow) movement. The diverse Tokyo theater scene, is “crazy,” he says. “There are a zillion companies, maybe more than in New York. They’re tiny, and they hold on tightly to their audiences, who are fiercely loyal.”
There are plenty of new Japanese plays (such as Yoji Sakate’s The Attic, about the antisocial youth movement “hikikomori,” and Oriza Hirata’s I, Worker, which pairs live actors with robotic ones) and Broadway imports performed in translation every season, but Oglevee recommends the classic genres: Noh, Kabuki (a more comical and campy style) and bunraku (a refined form of puppet theater). “Most people go to see the traditional stuff,” he says. “And theaters here really go out of their way to accommodate visitors, with earphone guides that provide a summary of what you’re seeing.” Tokyo’s National Theatre (4-1, Hayabusa-cho, Chiyoda-ku, 81-3-3265-7411, ntj.jac.go.jp/English) is a state-funded center for these traditional forms.
For a taste of Kabuki, Oglevee points to Kabuki-za (Kabuki House, 4-12-5 Ginza, 81-3-3541-3131, shochiku. co.jp/play/kabukiza/theater), located in a 120-year-old site in the bustling Ginza shopping district (in 2010 the owners plan to tear the theater down and rebuild). “It’s a great location,” Oglevee says. “Each program is in three pieces, and between them you can go into the shopping center and buy lunch or Kabuki memorabilia. It’s like going to a ball game.” For $7, tourists can opt for upper balcony seats and take in a single piece. (Sort of like sushi a la carte.) “Up there, it’s all foreigners,” Oglevee says.
For a walk on the wild side, try the Takarazuka (1-1-3 Yurakucho, 81-3-5251-2001, kageki.hankyu.co.jp/english, Japanese-speaking only), home to all-female musical extravaganzas (Kabuki is performed by men only). “The makeup is insane and the fan base is unbelievable,” Oglevee reports. “Shows sell out in 15 minutes. You can probably get a ticket through your concierge, but it won’t be cheap.” As one might expect in today’s Tokyo, cultural mashups produce odd juxtapositions. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Oglevee recalls of his first visit. “They did this insane glam dance to Prince’s ‘Sexy M.F.’ You know, I’m not exactly sure how they translated the lyrics.”
In your worldwide pursuit of theatrical thrills, some things get lost translation, but many more will be found.
David Cote is theater editor of Time Out New York.