Here at Last: A Preview of the Fall 2009 Off-Broadway Season

News   Here at Last: A Preview of the Fall 2009 Off-Broadway Season
The see-'em-all play cycle has become a hot trend in recent seasons, kicked off by Tom Stoppard's Russian history lesson, The Coast of Utopia, and continued last season by Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests.
Horton Foote
Horton Foote

Off-Broadway follows Broadway's lead this fall with the late Horton Foote's The Orphans' Home Cycle. The nine-play marathon is currently on view at Hartford Stage under the direction of Michael Wilson. It will transfer to New York's Signature Theatre Company—which has done very well by Mr. Foote over the years—beginning Nov. 5.

Foote was a prolific man, and the nine plays have been around for some time. The long story begins with a father's death in Foote's fictional, small, Texas town of Harrison at the turn of the century, an event that causes his son Horace Robedaux to take "an odyssey through the darkest corners of the heart as he learns to become a husband, father, and patriarch." The tale is based partly on the childhood of Foote's father and the courtship and marriage of his parents. Some of the plays, such as Lily Dale and The Widow Claire, have previously been seen in New York.

Keeping watch over her father's work is actress Hallie Foote, as well as her husband, Devon Abner, who both appear in the series, as well as other old Foote hands like Maggie Lacey and James DeMarse.

Kenneth Lonergan
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Another play that's a long time coming to New York is Kenneth Lonergan's The Starry Messenger, his first new work to be seen in New York since 2001's The Lobby Hero. Lonergan is a man who takes his time. (Witness the ten-year run-up to the still-unreleased, lawsuit-plagued "Margaret," the film follow-up to the writer's 2000 hit "You Can Count on Me.") The play, starring Lonergan pal Matthew Broderick, was first announced by Variety in March 2006 as a Broadway prospect for April 2007. That production, however, never happened. The play was then named as part of the 2006-2007 season at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, but it was later scratched from the line-up due to "unforeseen scheduling delays with playwright/director Kenneth Lonergan's current film." (That would be "Margaret.") It was then scheduled for Manhattan Theatre Club's 2007-08 season, but was canceled in November 2007 due to "scheduling conflicts." When it was finally rescheduled, it was with a different company, The New Group, which had produced Lonergan's This Is Our Youth many years back. Performances begin in October. Broderick, who can't seem to get away from being cast as a teacher lately, plays an astronomy teacher whose midlife crisis is thrown into relief by an unexpected affair that changes everything. Let's hope we get to see what happens this time around.

Theresa Rebeck and Julie White
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Just as Lonergan and Broderick have worked together successfully before, so have playwright Theresa Rebeck and actress Julie White, perhaps most notably on the solo play Bad Dates. They reteam on Oct. 9 at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre in The Understudy. As one might guess, it's a backstage drama about what takes place during the Broadway run of "a long-lost Kafka play." Kafka on Broadway? Well, it is a comedy. David Mamet doesn't believe in letting his laptop cool down. While two his plays are running on Broadway this fall, he'll be ferrying two others—both one-acts, both new—to premiere at the Atlantic Theatre Company. Keep Your Pantheon is a "rousing farce that follows the fortunes and misfortunes of an acting troupe in ancient Rome." School is described as a "brief comic discourse on recycling, poster design and the transmission of information." Neil Pepe directs both. Performances began Sept. 9.

Some lavishly produced plays appear to be more about what the actors are wearing than what they are saying. Love, Loss, and What I Wore actually is a play about garments, based on Ilene Beckerman's book of the same name. Adapted by film scribes Nora and Delia Ephron, the work is advertised as "a play about clothes and the memory they trigger, featuring a rotating cast of stage and screen actors." Part of the first rotation, beginning Sept. 21 at the Westside Theater, are Samantha Bee, Tyne Daly, Katie Finneran, Natasha Lyonne and Rosie O'Donnell.

Anna Deveare Smith
photo by Mary Ellen Mark

Personal experience, some first-hand, some received second-hand, inform a half-dozen Off-Broadway plays this autumn. Most prominent of the latter category is Anna Deveare Smith's latest bit of uncanny mimicry, Let Me Down Easy. To prepare for the Second Stage Theatre production, Smith interviewed dozens of people, famous and not, about health care and their relationship to caring for their bodies. The piece arrives in Manhattan at an ideal time, as the national debate is dominated by health-care issues. Previews begin Sept. 15. Aftermath opens on the same date at New York Theatre Workshop. For their docu-drama, authors Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen interviewed Iraqis about what happened to their lives after March 20, 2003 - the day the Americans arrived in their country. Jessica Blank directs the result. Telling their stories solo and first-person will be: Mike Daisey, talking about his time on a remote South Pacific island whose inhabitants worship America at the base of a constantly erupting volcano in The Last Cargo Cult, at the Public Theater in December; Charlayne Woodard, discussing the ways she has mentored the children in her life, in The Night Watcher, starting Sept. 22 at Primary Stages; and Lynn Redgrave in Nightingale, a play inspired by her maternal grandmother, Beatrice Kempson, the least-known member of the Redgrave acting dynasty, starting Oct. 15 at Manhattan Theatre Club.

Otherwise, some heavy-duty theatre is on tap at the Public Theater, including a new LAByrinth Theatre Company production of Othello starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz, and directed by Peter Sellars (opening Sept. 27). Try and find a ticket, my friend. And rising young playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney will return to the Public with his Kushnerian-titled trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays Part 1 & 2, a script about an extended family and community in the Bayou that is so ambitious, apparently, that it required two directors: Tina Landau (Part 1) and Robert O'Hara (Parts 2 and 3). The second part of the trilogy, The Brothers Size, was previously staged at the Public, to general acclaim. The Public will also provide a home to avant garde master Richard Foreman, who will direct Willem Dafoe in his latest "philosophical comedy," Idiot Savant.

Is there more? Why of course there is! This is Off-Broadway after all, and, even though many of the choice playing spaces have closed in the past year or so, there are still many stages to fill. Some of the more eye-catching attractions include: Broke-ology, Nathan Louis Jackson's play about two brothers who are called home to take care of their ailing father, opening at Lincoln Center Theater on Oct. 5; Still Life, an MCC Theatre production of Alexander Dinelaris' play about a photographer at the pinnacle of her career who inexplicably shuts down, beginning Sept. 16 at the Lucille Lortel; Circle Mirror Transformation, Annie Baker's work about four lost New Englanders (among them, Reed Birney, Peter Friedman, and Deirdre O’Connell) who enroll in a community center drama class experiment, bowing at Playwrights Horizons on Sept. 24; A Boy and His Soul, Colman Domingo's new solo play about the experiences of a young man and his family in 1970s and 80s Philadelphia, opening Sept. 24.

Also on its way are Ordinary Days, Adam Gwon's musical about four young New Yorkers whose lives are unexpectedly interconnected by circumstance, at the Roundabout beginning Oct. 2; The Lady With All the Answers, in which Judith Ivey plays advice columnist Ann Landers, at the Cherry Lane from Oct. 7 on; What Once We Felt, a Lincoln Center Theater at The Duke production of Ann Marie Healy's play about a writer's journey through the political world of publishing, as her novel becomes the last print published novel ever, commencing Oct. 26; This, the latest by Melissa James Gibson, about the joys — and disappointments — of entering one's forties, at Playwrights Horizons starting Nov. 6; a revival of Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band, at the Transport Theatre Company beginning in October; and Rebecca Gilman's adaptation of Carson McCullers' novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, from November at New York Theatre Workshop.

If you can't find something to like in that bunch, then your theatregoer's heart is a lonely hunter, indeed.

Writer's Note: A myriad of new Off-Broadway productions are on offer during the fall of 2009, and this overview is not meant to be exhaustive.

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