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The (affordable) play’s the thing
Our writer goes in search of midtown Manhattan theaters that offer quality productions at a quarter the price of Broadway. By Susan Laubach
By Susan Laubach

I love live theater.

My husband and I have subscribed to Center Stage since it was housed on North Avenue, and taking in a play is our first choice of what to do when we go to New York for the day or the weekend. But $250 and up for two matinee tickets (not including 18 percent tax)? Are they insane? There is nothing that happens for 21/2 hours on a stage that is worth that price for me.

Broadway, the hub of theater in America, has priced itself so far out of the range of many that I, for one, refuse to pay it. That’s why I recently went on a search for quality productions that don’t cost the price of a four-star hotel room to see. Where, I wondered, was the Center Stage of New York?

I was pleased to discover that within walking distance or a short cab ride of the Hunt Valley Motorcoach’s Manhattan midtown drop-off at Rockefeller Center, there are several excellent off-Broadway theaters that present shows of substance at reasonable, even cheap, prices.
During a weekend in late spring, we attended and thoroughly enjoyed shows at three of these theaters in the midtown area and paid less than $20 per ticket. All presented entertaining plays, both serious and funny, which were equal in intelligent content to anything we’ve seen at Center Stage— or on Broadway, for that matter.

59E59 Theaters

59E59 Theaters

Setting: This sleek glass-and-steel complex is based in the fully renovated former Delmonico Hotel (of Delmonico Steak fame) and bears not the slightest resemblance to it. Inside, there are three small theaters, ranging in size from 55 to 199 seats. At the intimate second-floor bar, my husband and I mingled with the cast of “Nothing,” who appeared post-performance, out of makeup and eager to chat amiably with audience members. There was a friendly, neighborhood atmosphere to this gathering of casually dressed theater-goers who ranged in age from 20s to 80s. Among them, veteran TV actress Frances Sternhagen, who waited patiently to pay her compliments to the cast of the play by Henry Green, which had just received rave notices in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Plot: It’s all about world premieres at 59E59, which strives to present plays that haven’t been performed anywhere else in the country. “We look for variety, for the unusual, but not strange, not experimental to the degree that the entertainment value is lost,” Peter Tear, the ruddy-faced, white-haired and affable British-born executive director, told me. “To that end, we ‘curate,’ to find the best.”

Cast:  59E59 Theaters opened less than three years ago but has enjoyed enormous success, offering up such actors as Marian Seldes, Nathan Lane, Isabella Rossellini and Richard Thomas in works by Terence McNally and Alan Ayckbourn, among others.

Every year artistic director Elysabeth Kleinhaus and executive director Tear scout the Edinburgh Festival and other venues in Britain in order to play host in the spring to “Brits Off Broadway,” a 10-week series of plays, many of which are prize-winners. “These are new works by new writers with excellent performances by British actors, both young and old, which, in some special way, represent Britain,” said Tear.

Recently, I attended a preview performance of “The Man Himself,” a one-man show written by Alan Drury in Theatre C, a large room with black walls and rows of seats facing an open area that served as the stage. The hour-long play was adapted, directed and performed by the Israeli actor Ami Dayan, who sat under a single spotlight with no stage set other than his chair. He gave a riveting monologue exploring, as promised in the play’s program, “an everyman’s drift to religious right extremism.” (Dayan received a rave review in the next day’s New York Times for his performance.)

The 59E59 Theaters’ location is an easy walk from Rockefeller Center and is in a neighborhood replete with restaurant choices, some of which offer discounts to the theaters’ members.

On stage:  “Sunset Limited,” by Cormac McCarthy, a Steppenwolf Theatre Company production. Oct. 24 through Nov. 19.

Before the show:  Try the Cinema Cafe, American cuisine with gourmet presentations served by black-clad waitresses with French accents. Moderately priced. (43 E. 60th St., 212-750-7500.) Or Paper Moon Express for pastas, pizza, sandwiches, salads with rapid and friendly service across the street from the theaters. Moderately priced. (54 E. 59th St., 212-688-5500.)

59 E. 59th St., 212-753-5959, http://www.59e59.org. Ticket prices vary depending on the production. Members, $12.60 to $47.50; non-members, $18 to $60 and may be purchased at the box office.

The New Group

The New Group

Setting:  The New Group, a complex of two ultra-modern theaters, is housed in a sleek, renovated building just west of Ninth Avenue. Its largest theater (199 seats) presents three plays a year. Stripped-down offerings (or “naked,” as the theater describes them) are held in the late spring in the Group’s intimate 99-seat theater. Here, the focus is on the playwright’s words and the actors’ interpretations. Elaborate costumes, sets and lights are of lesser importance. 

I attended a performance of the one-man show “A Spalding Gray Matter,” written and performed by Michael Brandt, surrounded by an audience of friendly middle-aged locals, in this comfortable space. The dark comedy was provocative, linking Brandt’s serious illness to the disappearance and suicide of monologist and writer Spalding Gray.

Plot:  The New Group strives to offer interesting plays at prices that don’t scare people off. This strategy has paid off in the form of regular sellouts, not to mention seven Obies and three Tony awards. New playwrights get a chance to develop their works with artistic director Scott Elliot via a free reading series of works in progress. Some 30 to 40 of these take place per season.

Cast:  Several of The New Group’s productions have moved to Broadway after their successful runs (e.g. “Avenue Q”). Many well-known actors, such as Ethan Hawke and Parker Posey, appear at TNG for the same Equity pay as the rest of the ensemble just for the opportunity to return to the stage in challenging roles.

On stage: “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” by Jay Presson Allen, starring “Sex and the City’s” Cynthia Nixon, through Nov.11; “The Fever” by Wallace Shawn and, in the spring, “The Accomplices” by Bernard Weinraub, specific dates to be announced.

Before the show: Try the down-home atmosphere and comfortable booths at the Theatre Row Diner two doors away, serving hefty portions of a huge variety of menu choices, inexpensively priced. Good for after the show, too. (424 W. 42nd St., 212-426-6000.)

410 W. 42nd St., 212-279-4200, http://www.thenewgroup.org. Subscriptions to The New Group’s season of three plays are $106. Individual tickets are also available for $55; tickets for productions in the small theater are $15 each. During July, the Group’s Summer Play Festival produces 18 plays by promising new playwrights for just $10 per ticket.

Signature Theatre Company

Signature Theatre Company



Setting: Fifteen years ago, this theater was one of the first to burst onto the off-Broadway scene along 42nd Street’s Theatre Row. Time Warner underwrites each eight-week season enabling the Signature Theatre to offer outstanding productions for a mere $15 per seat in its 199-seat Peter Norton Space, named for the businessman (Norton Utilities), philanthropist and chairman of the theater’s board of directors. The theater is intimate with comfortable seating. There really isn’t a bad seat in the house (or at any of the other theaters covered here).

Plot:  Signature focuses each season on the body of work of an acclaimed American playwright, presenting his/her choice of works with the writer in residence during the production period. This enables the audience to see the plays interpreted exactly as the playwright intended and adds dramaturgical perspective to the series. In its opening season 15 years ago, Arthur Miller was the featured playwright; other years Signature has presented the plays of Horton Foote, Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson and Paula Vogel, among others. The plays of August Wilson, tapped for this season’s presentation two years before his death this year, are the current focus. (In his absence, his wife and close associates are serving as consultants on the productions.) 

Cast:  The Signature Theatre has won more than its share of awards including Obies to actors Edward Norton and Hallie Foote, and the Drama Desk Award for acting to Bill Irwin. Last spring, my husband and I saw a superb production of John Guare’s “Landscape of the Body,” with Lili Taylor.

On stage: “Two Trains Running” by August Wilson, Nov. 7 through Dec. 31. “King Hedley II” follows, Feb. 20 through April 15, 2007.
Before the show: 44 and X in Hell’s Kitchen has moderately priced American cuisine and comes highly recommended by theater general manager Jody Carter (622 Tenth Ave. at 44th Street, 212-977-1170). The West Bank Cafe serves “American Nouveau” to go along with a fair share of celebrity sightings (407 W. 42nd St., 212-695-6909). 

555 W. 42nd St., between 10th and 11th avenues, 212-244-7529, http://www.signaturetheatre.org. Tickets, $15 each during the eight-week run. If extended, $55 each. Rush tickets are sometimes available the day of the show; add yourself to Signature’s e-mail list to receive first notice of ticket sales.

Former actress and playwright Susan Laubach lives in Baltimore.

NOVEMBER 2006

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