It may be off-season in the theater, but there’s no shortage of stage activity in Gotham — a Beckett festival at the Lincoln Center, for instance, or the New York International Fringe Festival prepping for its August showcase of events from around the country (including several entries from Los Angeles). That said, the economic malaise has underscored a trend that has been in the making for years — the tightening financial squeeze on midlevel off-Broadway productions. There are ticket buyers aplenty for top-price Broadway shows, as well as for the bargain-basement $15-$20 tickets for off-off-Broadway events, but the off-Broadway, subscriber-based venues are hurting. Those $40-$60 tickets have become a hard sell, and patrons just aren’t committing the way they used to for a season at the midsize Manhattan Theatre Club, Atlantic Theater Company or the Roundabout Theatre Company. If you’re in from out of town, those theaters are ripe for picking. Here are a few off-Broadway shows seen over a recent balmy week.
The latest Chicago import, Mickle Maher’s loose weave of Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger through the prism of the 2004 U.S. presidential debates, is a magnificent oddity sustained largely by brilliant impersonations of John Kerry (Maher), George W. Bush (Guy Massey) and Jim Lehrer (Colm O’Reilly). The sleepwalking Kerry self-righteously scores a point against Bush over the quibble that the senator may doze on occasion but has not entered dreamland. This was, I think, in response to a question about foreign policy. The actor-directed piece pays scrupulous attention to the insipid rituals of a televised debate, onstage and off, before upending the entire dog-and-pony show with the attempt by the president to murder, on the air, the unflappable host. (That’s where they massage in Camus’ existential ruminations on the moral consequence, or lack thereof, of life and death.) To believe all this requires some suspensions of disbelief: Here, Bush is a closet theater-phile in search of the perfect theatrical moment, inspired by the blurring of fact and fantasy he once saw in a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Among his crises, beyond his inability to articulate his deep thoughts, is a state of the world in which the population is largely apathetic toward a global imperative to murder innocents for no particular reason. You can feel intellectual tendons straining at the reach for a serious philosophical truth through such whimsy, but, for the pure delight of invention, this show shouldn’t be missed. Theater Oobleck at the Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St., Greenwich Village; Tues.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7 p.m.; indef. (212) 239-6200.
Life in a Marital Institution
James Braly’s one-man show about his awful marriage — and his cheerful submission to it — has scooped up rave reviews. Maybe it was the Spalding Gray–ishness that locals found so appealing, but it sent me into the land of moral judgment, the only place I try to avoid even more than shows like this. Braly did offer some wry observations of marital behavior, but his tone sustained a hyperkinetic pitch that would have had me scratching the walls were they in reach. I completely checked out after he told of the home birth of his second son against doctors’ orders. The infant had difficulty breathing, but rather than take the baby to the hospital, per the telephone advice of a physician and a nurse, Braly once more caved in to the lunacy of his alt-med wife, squandering three hours to get the child to a shaman in a hipster hotel lobby. Braly kept laughing reflexively at the situation, but child endangerment via spineless self-absorption is not an idea I find amusing. There was also endless prattle about dinner parties where the topic of discussion among Braly’s coven of friends was the burying and/or eating of long-frozen placentas, by which time I was at screaming point. The Deep End Productions at the Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam St.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7 p.m.; indef. (212) 691-1555.
The Marriage of Bette and Boo
Walter Bobbie’s revival of Christopher Durang’s autobiographical farce about his nutty family comes jammed with theater stars (John Glover, Julie Hagerty, Kate Jennings Grant, and more) and gets caught in middlebrow revival land. The largely octogenarian subscribers still appeared to find the play’s Beckettian irreverence to the Catholic Church too edgy, while to those of us who grew up on Durang, it feels like the theatrical equivalent of watching a Lenny Bruce shock-comedy routine: Boy, that must have blown some fuses back in the day. The crises over the pressure to get married have changed shape since the play’s 1985 debut, and those changes aren’t reflected here. Heather Burns has touching moments as the psychotically apologetic sister to narrator Matthew (Charles Socarides), but the sheen of director Bobbie’s production is too glossy to connect to the despair of family hell, the kind of connection that might still blow a few fuses. Roundabout Theatre Company at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St.; Tues.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Wed., Sat. & Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Sept. 7. (212) 719-9393.
Liam Neeson performed as a dying man in a hovel in Samuel Beckett’s television drama. He’s tortured by a voice in his head (voice-over by Penelope Wilton), bitterly chastising him for his mediocrity in general, and his infidelity in particular. (“Anyone living love you now, Joe?”) The agony of this riveting 30-minute portrait of regret was amped up by director Atom Egoyan’s decision to broadcast the mute Neeson’s image large onto a proscenium scrim, while the flesh-and-blood actor sat on a cot facing an upstage corner. Wilton’s rich, gravelly rendition of Beckett’s tart remarks on the end of an unremarkable life accompanied Neeson’s flinching, wincing face. Clutching his cheeks and pulling at flesh at one point was overblown, but that’s a petty quibble with this haunting, visceral chamber piece, unfortunately now closed. Hope for a reprise. Lincoln Center Festival, Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, 899 10th Ave. Closed.
One in a stream of Chicago imports, Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith’s musical based on the 1921 Elmer Rice play closed last weekend after a heralded five-month run. The pre-Brechtian meaning-of-life saga studies a drone named Mr. Zero (played with striking unsentimentality by Joel Hatch) who, after losing his 25-year job at a firm that plans to replace him with an adding machine, murders the boss. He’s blithe about his death sentence, relishing his last meal of ham and eggs, largely because the only thing worse than his miserable job is spending time with his nagging wife (Cyrilla Baer). Besides, he’s too dumb to recognize the fondness felt for him by co-worker Daisy (the lovely Amy Warren), and whatever fleeting pleasures a romance between them might have brought. Slavery isn’t just a lousy job, it’s a constricted frame of mind. Composer/co-author Schmidt gets things off to a strategically atonal start, as though we’re in an opera by Schoenberg, with like support from director David Cromer’s crisp, arch staging on Takeshi Kata sets that eventually spin from austere to a lush cartoon in one scene of bucolic Purgatory. Both music and the production’s tone relax into something with fleeting breezes of harmony and humanity. These, and the droll humor of Hatch’s protagonist, provide relief from the austerity that nonetheless keeps glibness at bay. Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane. Closed.