by Carole Di Tosti . . .
Institutions, including the institution of American theater, do change. However, the transformation often is at a snail’s pace. The unique digital media presentation, which streamed for four evenings, Off Broadway, written by Torrey Townsend (The Workshop) directed by Robert O’Hara (Slave Play) sardonically confronts issues which live theater has turned a blind eye to again and again. Presented by playwright Jeremy O. Harris in association with Lucas Katler, Jana Shea and Broadstream Media, Off Broadway is a laugh riot in its dark comedic moments which pack a truthful, satiric punch.
Townsend ironically dishes and excoriates the attempts that a nonprofit theater company makes to negotiate the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic which closes live theater and threatens the theater company’s solvency. Initially, we follow the lower echelon staff Marla (Jessica Frances Dukes) and Steph (Kara Wang) as they discuss their concerns. From them we understand that the company has been failing with losses before the pandemic because the play selections don’t draw an audience. The company has ceased to become relevant, current or excitingly novel.
As they chat, the power players of the company join the Zoom meeting and the women leave. We contrast their concerns with those of the two women. Indeed, it appears that Andy Martin (Dylan Baker) Betty Retting (Becky Ann Baker) and the Artistic Director Daryl Lependorf (Richard Kind) exemplify what Marla and Steph rightly criticized. Underlying self-destructive attitudes of white supremacy and a failure to understand the direction which the company should be taking correlates to a lack of success. Andy and Daryl are clueless about how to reverse course from doom and bankruptcy by appealing to a cross section audience of all ages, genders, races and ethnic groups.
Townsend’s dialogue is spot-on and pings every issue that confronts the problems of Broadway and Off Broadway: commercialism, inattention to great, new work, top-heavy salaries to bureaucrats and CEOs. Additionally, their discussion reveals a refusal to understand that jettisoning bigotry and racism in play selection and management would actually be a boon for their company. They have lost their way. Indeed, group think has vitiated their mission of delivering astounding, invigorating theater with moment and currency. The irony is that Daryl started the company to be relevant but stayed too long and is making the company a dinosaur.
The humor is dark. As these old-time theater has-beens discuss how to raise money, which is their overarching concern, their obliviousness is riotous. Richard Kind provides a killer turning point with an authenticity that made me weep with laughter. And Dylan Baker in the second half does the same; the event and his reveal are laugh out loud wonderful.
There is no spoiler alert, so I won’t give the reveal here. You will probably see another adaptation of Off Broadway. My review will not ruin your enjoyment of any future production, which I hope takes place in the next year because the play is marvelous. I delighted in the fact that the drop-dead humor is targeted and good enough to shake up a few privileged nonprofits that have grown slack and sloppy in their offerings and executions.
As events rapidly leap from frying pan into the fire, Marla and Steph become bolder. Andy and Betty jump into exploitation theater, revealing who they are in the worst way imaginable. However, what Andy imagines, most probably in reality has been imagined by some wag of an AD to foster controversy and PR, to draw crowds and fluff up the bottom line.
As we cheer on the two brave women for expressing their appropriate outrage against Andy and what’s left of the upcoming theater season put together with the assistance of Garrick Chauveaux (Jason Butler Harner) the inevitable occurs. How the company manages to resolve the dire event by dealing with the two heroes is bittersweet and a darkly comic, “told ya.”
Of course, that is Townsend’s and O’Hara’s point. “Wouldn’t it be loverly” if it didn’t have to be this way. If only, indeed. Off Broadway is serious and pointed and acerbic and hysterical, thanks to the playwright and the director who feel this in their bones. In its ironic brilliance it is a must see. I wish I could tell you when to see it. The cast were anointed; their pacing and delivery resonant; Kind and Baker memorable, Kara and Jessica Frances beloved. And there’s even a cameo by Hal Linden who sings Camelot exuberantly.
To O’Hara and Townsend beyond bravo. If/when I feel depressed about the direction of non-profit theater, I’ll make sure to conjure up events in this play to dispel my “blues.” Just wow!