2000-01 SEASON PREVIEW: Off-Broadway

News   2000-01 SEASON PREVIEW: Off-Broadway It's gonna be a darkly-shaded and offbeat year Off-Broadway -- or so it seems from a plethora of non-traditional offerings slated for the 2000-01 season. Sure there'll be laughs (Les Mizrahi) and even a little music (three premieres at the York), but from a marionette-filled AIDS play to race and Holocaust-related dramas to works by Samuel Beckett and Susan Sontag, no one will mistake this season for summer stock at the Melody Barn.

It's gonna be a darkly-shaded and offbeat year Off-Broadway -- or so it seems from a plethora of non-traditional offerings slated for the 2000-01 season. Sure there'll be laughs (Les Mizrahi) and even a little music (three premieres at the York), but from a marionette-filled AIDS play to race and Holocaust-related dramas to works by Samuel Beckett and Susan Sontag, no one will mistake this season for summer stock at the Melody Barn.

The following is a brief run-down of the productions and season schedules slated for Off Broadway this season.

What more macabre way to start the season than with an adaptation of works by pen-and-ink cartoonist Edward Gorey? Gorey Details, with music by Peter Matz and direction-choreography by Daniel Levans (Amphigorey), starts performances at the Century Center Sept. 26.

Craig Lucas, who followed his critically lambasted God's Heart at Lincoln Center with the highly acclaimed The Dying Gaul at the Vineyard, returns to the latter venue Sept. 26 with Stranger, starring Kyra Sedgwick and David Strathairn. This strangers-on-a-plane drama will be directed by Mark Brokaw, who helmed How I Learned to Drive. Another starry twosome, Eileen Atkins and Alan Bates, will be at the Promenade Theatre in The Unexpected Man, the eagerly-awaited next play from Art author Yasmina Reza.

Tom Donaghy's The Beginning of August, opening the Atlantic Theatre Company season Sept. 27, features Mary Steenburgen as a housewife pulling a Doll's House-style exit. The Atlantic season will also offer new works by Kia Corthron -- Force Continuum -- and by Mojo's Jez Butterworth. After Rebecca Gilman's Spinning Into Butter ends its well-received run at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi Newhouse Theatre Sept. 17, LCT favorite Wendy Wasserstein premieres her latest, Old Money, starting Nov. 9. John Cullum (Shenandoah, "Northern Exposure") stars as a New York history professor.

Speaking of playwright Gilman, her new play, Boy Gets Girl, will be among a number of Manhattan Theatre Club plays about, well, women with problems. In Gilman's drama, a woman's life is changed after a single, chilling date. David Lindsay-Abaire -- returning to MTC after their second-stage mounting of Fuddy Meers went on to a commercial run last season -- seems to have another nutty piece up his sleeve: Wonder of the World tells of a woman who escapes her drab life to encounter "a blithely suicidal alcoholic, a salty sea captain...and a gargantuan jar of peanut butter." In a more somber vein, Melanie Marnich's award-winning Blur tells of a troubled teen whose mom (Polly Draper) is slowly going blind. Also on the MTC roster are Alan Ayckbourn's darkly farcical Comic Potential, featuring Kellie Overbey and Olivier-Award winning actress Janie Dee as an "actoid," that is, a computer trained to be an actor; and The NewYorkers, an edgy musical revue about Manhattan life.

A whole slew of notable playwrights will receive premieres this season courtesy of the Signature Theatre Company which is celebrating its tenth anniversary by asking all nine of the scribes hailed with year long retrospectives in the past nine years, to create new plays. Romulus Linney kicks off the season by adapting Ernest J. Gaines' novel, A Lesson Before Dying. Pulitzer-winner Horton Foote will be up next with The Last of the Thorntons. Lee Blessing's Thief River will close part one of the anniversary line-up (with new works from Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Maria Irene Fornes, John Guare and Sam Shepard expected in 2001-02). The most unexpected aspect of the series belongs to dramatist Adrienne Kennedy. Instead of penning a new work, Kennedy asked four of her peers to write one-act monologues instead. Since those colleagues contributing to Urban Zulu Mambo are Ntozake Shange, Kia Corthron, Suzan-Lori Parks and Regina Taylor (with Taylor performing all four), one imagines Signature Theatre didn't mind the unorthodox programming.

Speaking still of solos, while his Fool Moon co-hort David Shiner cavorts in Seussical, Bill Irwin will open the season at CSC Repertory Theatre by acting in and directing Samuel Beckett's existential Texts for Nothing. And that's the lightest fare at that theatre! Other shows set for the season include Ferdinand Bruckner's Race, about the rise of Hitler; George Bartenieff and Karen Malpede adapting I Will Bear Witness, based on the Holocaust-era diaries of Victor Klemperer; and Philip Glass and Rudolph Wurlitzer's musical adaptation of Kafka's In the Penal Colony (staged by Joanne Akalaitis).

Dark doings will also be on view at the Public Theater, from Philippine politics to Elizabethan intrigues. Kit Marlowe, David Grimm's bio of Doctor Faustus scribe Christopher Marlowe, traces the title's rise as a playwright and fall as a spy. A new John Moran "attraction" [his word ] titled Book of the Dead (Second Avenue) promises the usual mix of imagery, movement, drama and music, by the creator of Everyday Newt Berman. After that, Michael Greif, who helmed Rent, stages Jessica Hagedorn's look at the Marcos years, Dogeaters. Also promised in March is the latest from In the Blood author Suzan-Lori Parks, Topdog/Underdog, about two brothers given the weighty names "Lincoln" and "Booth." Closing the Public season with a bit of fantasy will be References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, a Jose Rivera play that's already been making some noise on the regional circuit.

True to its downtown-y nature, New York Theatre Workshop will take excursions into gothic hell, historical fantasia and underground sexuality. Ronnie Burkett's Theatre of Marionettes have started the season (in conjunction with the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theatre) with Street of Blood, described as a "prairie gothic epic" about contaminated blood, AIDS and celebrity worship. NYTW then becomes a palace of Alices -- two, actually, merged into one in Susan Sontag's Alice in Bed. The piece looks at William and Henry James' brilliant real-life sister and melds her life into that of Lewis Carroll's fictional, fantastical heroine. Ivo van Hove, a Workshop fave whose A Streetcar Named Desire and More Stately Mansions split critics violently down the middle, returns to bring the same experimental staging to Alice. Quieter but no less outrageous, Resident Alien will offer Bette Bourne soloing as the late Quentin Crisp, a gay icon and raconteur who provided running commentary as society's perception of gay culture change completely during his lifetime.

Second Stage Theatre, basking in the glory of its Jitney hit, will mix the tried and true with the new this year, with a few big names thrown in for seasoning. No doubt a Garry Hynes-directed revival of Crimes of the Heart will feature a notable or two, while Richard Thomas is already inked to lead a revival of Edward Albee's Tiny Alice. With Cellini, John Patrick Shanley ("Moonstruck," Psychopathia Sexualis) returns to the realm of outsized, oddball characters and romance -- albeit this time set in the Renaissance. Capping the Second Stage season will be a new musical by Willie Reale and Robert Reale, Once Around The City, set in the Reaganomic `80s. Mark Linn-Baker will direct City, only one of his many duties as he temporarily takes over as the company's artistic director for a vacationing Carole Rothman, starting in January.

Inaugurating the Duke Theatre space in the New 42nd Street complex will be The In-Gathering, a musical by John Henry Redwood (The Old Settler) and Bring in `da Noise/Bring in `da Funk's Daryl Waters, directed and choreographed by Hope Clarke (Jelly's Last Jam). Noise/Funk Tony winner Ann Duquesnay leads a cast of 13.

Redwood will also have a show at OB's Primary Stages this season: the provocatively-titled, No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs, about two people facing racism in 1944 North Carolina. Luis Alfaro's absurdist look at a mother and AIDS-infected son, Straight as a Line, opens the Primary Stages season, with Y York's Krisit, about an actress inching her way back into the spotlight, also in the lineup.

At Playhouse 91, former home of the Jewish Repertory Theater (now relocated to midtown), an independent production of The Syringa Tree opens Sept. 14 for an open run. Pamela Gien not only penned this look at white and black families in South Africa, she stars as all 28 characters in the piece.

Off-Broadway will also see the return of Tovah Feldshuh as Tallulah Bankhead, via Tallulah Hallelujah!, at the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre. Feldshuh had done a different Bankhead show a couple of seasons back, but this one -- written by Feldshuh with additional material by Larry Amoros and Linda Selman -- catches the famed actress in the midst of a USO Show. William Wesbrooks directs.

A very different sort of biographical story will be told in Lifegame, arriving at the Jane Street Theatre this fall courtesy of the UK's Improbable Theatre Company (the folks who gave the New Victory kiddies nightmares with Shockheaded Peter last year). This time, members of the audience will have their true-life stories turned into improv, via theatre games and storytelling. And Lifegame is not to be confused with Game Show, an interactive comedy in which audience members get play trivia and win prizes in a quiz format, moderated by Michael McGrath (late of "The Martin Short Show" and Cocoanuts) at the 45 Bleecker space.

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D'oh! Dan Castellaneta, best known for being the voice of TV's Homer J. Simpson, must've caught the Off-Broadway bug when he appeared last season in CSC's The Alchemist. Starting Sept. 13 he'll be at the Chelsea Playhouse appearing in his own absurdist solo, Where Did Vincent Van Gogh, staged by veteran comedy director Art Wolff.

An even less likely soloist is former fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, whose Les Mizrahi will be the first Drama Dept. offering, Oct. 3. Mizrahi will sing and dance and design the sets and costumes. (But will he usher?) Mainstage shows for Drama Dept. include the latest from their golden boy, Douglas Carter Beane, collaborating on a musical with Douglas Cohen, The Big Time. Beane's Drama Dept. shows included the commercial hit As Bees in Honey Drown and the critically acclaimed The Country Club. Cohen is best known for scoring No Way to Treat a Lady. Pulitzer finalist Richard Greenberg's The Dazzle will also be part of the Drama Dept. season, as will an as-yet-unnamed work by Amy and David Sedaris, she of TV's "Strangers with Candy," he of The Santaland Diaries, and they of "The Talent Family," which created One Woman Shoe and The Little Frieda Mysteries.

On the lighter side as well will be The Wax, a farcical piece by Kathleen Tolan opening Jan. 7 2001 at Playwrights Horizons. Brian Kulick directs this look at writers and scientists colliding in "a hilarious roll on the middle-aged hay." Less happy collisions are promised in Theresa Rebeck's The Butterfly Collection, which examines a dysfunctional New England family, and Kenneth Lonergan's latest, Lobby Hero, about scared urban apartment dwellers. Those three works plus a new musical will fill out the Playwrights Horizons mainstage season.

Also in a musical vein, 4 Guys Named Jose...and Una Mujer Named Maria will no doubt liven up the Blue Angel with its "boleros, cha chas, mambos, merengues and salsa," and Luis Santeiro and Fernando Rivas' Barrio Babies, at the John Houseman, takes a tuneful look at Latino culture.

While the Roundabout Theatre Company firms up its Broadway season schedule at the American Airlines Theatre, and maps out plans for taking over and renovating the American Place (to be renamed the Laura Pels) in late 2002, the company continues to do Off-Broadway work at the Gramercy Theatre. Starting Sept. 22 and opening Oct. 19 will be a revival of Sean O'Casey's masterpiece, Juno and the Paycock, directed by Donmar veteran John Crowley and starring Dearbhla Molloy. (The two did a Juno in London last year.)

The harsh worlds of politics, social order and dysfunctional families will be on view as well in the Manhattan Class Company season. Simon Block's A Place at the Table examines the pitfalls of ambition when a disabled writer enters the world of television politics. That's followed by The Dead Eye Boy, about an ex-Marine on the verge of wrecking his new family, and SKIPwith, about the hermetic world of university life. The latter is co-written by ubiquitous New York actor Brian Murray, who also stars.

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Though summer is traditionally a time when hastily cobbled-together shows scoot in and out of Off-Broadway theatres, seemingly just taking up space until the "real" shows arrive in the fall, a few productions that arrived in the summer are staying put. Don Juan in Hell, a limited run by the Irish Repertory Theatre that was recently extended through Oct. 8. Donal Donnelly, Celeste Holm, James A. Stephens and Fritz Weaver star in this excerpt from Man and Superman. Berlin to Broadway With Kurt Weill is the latest revue at the Triad. At the Minetta Lane Theatre, despite mixed reviews and prognostications of doom, the musical imPERFECT CHEMISTRY [sic] intends to hang on and build an audience, possibly even through the holidays -- and also possibly nixing a fall arrival of Anne Meara's latest, Down the Garden Paths, which has a "back-up" reservation on the Minetta Lane should CHEMISTRY combust. A revival of Godspell that opened Aug. 2 at St. Peter's Church has been drawing audiences and will stick around through Oct. 7 and then try to move; in October the York Theatre Company will start up its Musicals in Mufti series and assumedly need the space back. (The York roster will include Fermat's Last Tango, about a professor who tackles the famous math problem, by Joanne Sydney Lessner and Joshua Rosenblum; Suburb, David Javerbaum and Robert S. Cohen's warm musical comedy about a couple's jitters as they look to leave the city for the 'burbs; and The It Girl, drawn from "It," the 1927 picture that made Clara Bow a sensation. Jerry Zaks will be a production consultant on the latter show, which has a book by Michael Small and B.T. McNicholl, music by Paul McKibbins, and lyrics by McNicholl.)

Plays that have been knocking on Off-Broadway's door for months but still can't seem to find a home include Jeffrey Sweet's Flyovers and Jolson Sings Again. Edward Albee's The Lorca Play is also on the runway, as is the Sally Mayes musical, Pete `n' Keely. Producers also may be looking for remounts of such popular limited-runs as Tabletop, Joe Fearless and The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin.

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Off-Broadway productions that have stuck around for awhile but show no signs of letting up include The Countess at the Lamb's Theatre, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change and The Vagina Monologues, both at the Westside, Naked Boys Singing at the Actors' Playhouse, Our Sinatra (which recently moved to the Reprise Room), De La Guarda at the Daryl Roth, the Pulitzer-winning Dinner With Friends at the Variety Arts, and Fully Committed, now starring Roger Bart, at the Cherry Lane. August Wilson's Jitney did so well at Second Stage throughout the summer, the much-acclaimed drama will now try its luck at the larger Union Square Theatre.

Finally, though on Broadway Cats may have closed and Miss Saigon has but a few more months to live, Off-Broadway has a slew of ultra long-runners: Blue Man Group at the Astor Place, Stomp at the Orpheum, a new edition of Forbidden Broadway at the Stardust, Perfect Crime at the Duffy, Tony `n' Tina's Wedding, and, lest we forget, The Fantasticks at the Sullivan Street Playhouse. Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt's ultimate survivor will even get a little extra publicity, as the film version, in the can for more than five years and long-assumed to be discarded, finally gets a theatrical release. As we said, it's gonna be a nutty year.

-- By David Lefkowitz