By Barbara & Scott Siegel
Broadway is the destination for the vast majority of people who come to New York City for the theater. Of course, theater lovers with more time, more courage, and often with more discernment, seek out the plays and musicals that are created in wide abundance in Off and Off-Off Broadway venues. Many of those theaters are also either in or near the Theater District. Outside of the theater district, Off & Off-Off Broadway theaters also flourish in the tourist-friendly West Village. But you might be interested to know that there was a time, not so long ago, when New York’s East Side was also a destination for smart theatergoers. Manhattan Theater Club got its start on the Upper East Side; The Jewish Rep performed on East 91st Street. For many years you could see the current edition of Forbidden Broadway at a small theater in the East 60’s. And as these writers are East Siders ourselves, we are pleased to tell you that theater on the East Side of Manhattan is still alive and well. And there is more of it than you might think.
Consider all of the theater that’s on the east side of 5th Avenue. And start with The Public Theater on Lafayette Street; if ever there was a more important hub of New York theater, you’d be hard pressed to find it. Further south, in the vibrant East Village — and especially on East 4th Street — you’ve got New York Theater Workshop, La Mama, and further east on 4th Street, in Alphabet City, The Metropolitan Playhouse and The Connelly, the latter serving this last season as a satellite theater for Ars Nova.
Of course, the East Village is a world unto itself, and when we talk about theater on the East Side, most folks don’t think of theaters like The Public or New York Theater Workshop in that way; they’re not midtown East or Upper East Side. But hold on: there are two major theaters that are thriving in just that area: 59E59 and the York Theater Company. Let’s talk about them, shall we?
59E59 has, almost from the start, been a high end Off Broadway house making a niche for itself as the showplace for low budget, but high art, European (and especially English) theater. The theater has also been the home to the ground-breaking Godlight Theater Company, the wonderfully retro Anderson Twins musical retrospectives and, for a long period of time, home to Primary Stages.
Most recently, during their annual and much admired Brits Off Broadway series, 59E59 presented an extraordinary play titled Secret Life of Humans by David Byrne. It was that rare triple threat of the theater: beautifully written, exquisitely acted, and deliciously directed. It would be a disservice to the play to try and encapsulate the plot in a few sentences; the story that unfolds is both specific to its characters and profoundly universal in its scope. If this play had opened during the 2017-2018 season, we would declare it the best play of the year. Insofar as it has opened so early in the 2018-2019 season, all we can say is that it will take something mighty special to better this extraordinary piece of theater. It’s playing thru July 1st at 59E59 main stage, Theater A. If you can get a ticket, you will love it.
Just a handful of blocks south of 59E59 is the York Theater on East 54th Street between Third Avenue and Lexington Avenue, deep, down below St. Peter’s Church in the Citicorp Building. The York has built and maintained its special niche as a purveyor of new musicals. Its current show, Lonesome Blues, is a bit on the esoteric side, detailing the life of early bluesman, Blind Lemon Jefferson. Making the piece particularly worthwhile, though, is the performance of Akin Babatudne as Jefferson in this one-person show. But even as this show runs (also) to July 1st, one can point to Desperate Measures, which just opened at New World Stages for an open-ended run, and take note of the fact that this Drama Desk Award-winning musical got its start last season at The York and transferred after its critically acclaimed run. The York has had many other such successes and continues as a valuable part of the theater community.
So, theater on the East Side of Manhattan is absolutely worth the trip, even from the West Side.