As Broadway Turns to Spectacle, Off-Broadway Nourishes Original Plays

To judge by this year’s Obie award winners, American playwriting is in a wonderful state. Which, for me, dramatizes the startling difference between the American theater and that strange money-driven place we call Broadway. It’s a paradox: We at the Obies are giving no less than five awards to exceptional new plays, selected from a very long and impressive list. Meantime, the Tony Awards, which confine themselves to Broadway, could barely find five new plays to nominate in the Best Play category. Three of them are British imports, and two of those — Farinelli and the King and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — essentially “stunt” productions in which the writing is largely a mere excuse to display, in the former, the showy acting of Mark Rylance and the sumptuous singing of Iesten Davies; and, in the latter, a parade of magical effects and J.K. Rowling’s beloved characters. Slim pickings uptown in the playwriting department.

But that’s really no longer news. Despite now having four nonprofit institutions that regularly produce there (Lincoln Center, Manhattan Theatre Club, Roundabout, and Second Stage), Broadway, with its high costs and staggeringly high ticket prices, has remained in essence a commercial enterprise. If those who bankroll its shows see a possibility of profit in a new play, it can arrive there. Last year, the Tony nominators found four new plays, all of them American, to compete for the Best Play title. Three of them, as it happened, had previously been produced Off-Broadway (and been accorded various Obie honors); the fourth was by a gifted young writer who’d won an Obie for his two previous plays. All four playwrights were making their Broadway debuts, though the list included two Pulitzer Prize winners, one of whom was at the same time receiving an Obie for Lifetime Achievement.

This year, perhaps by coincidence, or maybe because none of last year’s Tony nominees was a gigantic money success on the Big Street, Broadway offered no such flurry of new playwriting. All the Tony nominators could find, along with the two works I’ve mentioned above, were one serious British play, The Children, imported by one of Broadway’s four nonprofits in a production by a London nonprofit; one serious (and to my mind first-rate) new American play, Junk, also produced by one of the nonprofits; and a smart, funny solo piece, Latin History for Morons, by John Leguizamo, who had already been announced as the recipient of a special Tony Award, apparently just for being an all-around, theater-loving good guy. Well, we love Leguizamo downtown too; he is a good guy, and a spectacular writer-performer. But what about playwriting?

Left to right: Obie winners Aleshea Harris, Abe Koogler, Amy Herzog, Rajiv Joseph, and Dominique Morisseau

That’s why the juxtaposition of our five Obies for playwriting with the slender list of Tony nominees underscores the point so strongly: Playwriting, as an enterprise, has purposes other than making money. And while money is a key factor in everyone’s life — nobody writes plays in order to starve to death — it really isn’t the central motivation. People create theater — make plays, stage them, perform in them, design them, produce them — because their hearts and minds are full of visions that demand expression. Nor do those visions grow in them by accident: They spring directly from an artist’s transactions with the surrounding society. That’s true most of all for playwrights, in whose inner life the outside world is transformed, to be spun back into an external object that — if the playwright has any artistic power — will in turn work its own transformation, however small, on the world. Plays evoke the past, confront the present, are harbingers of the future.

When a theater based on money, as Broadway largely is, doesn’t want to do any of these things, that’s a dangerous sign for society at large. It’s also a sign that the impulse has moved elsewhere — to Off-Broadway, to the Off-Off experimental spaces and workshops, to the regions. This has been happening in the theater for some time; increasingly, it reflects the disaster of our current political situation. People whose sole concern is acquiring money rule Broadway as they rule the present administration. (I’m not saying they’re the same people — the quest for money above all can pay lip service to various sets of political beliefs.) But the creative impulse, like the feelings of most Americans, lies elsewhere. And between caring for money and caring for creation, it’s easy to see which one ultimately triumphs; money often wins the day, but its victories are always temporary, and often bitterly regretted.

Because the quest for money notoriously hardens the heart, it’s not irrelevant that all five of this year’s Obie-winning plays deal, each in its different way, with the dialectic between caring and cruelty. That includes the winner of our Best New American Play award, by tradition the only “Best” the Obies give. Dense, elaborate, and multigenerational, Rajiv Joseph’s Describe the Night travels through some of modern European history’s cruelest phases, mixing fact with rumor and imagination in a sheerly magical way. Its pivotal characters are a great writer, Isaac Babel, and his youthful friend, Nikolai Yezhov, who becomes head of the Soviet secret police. Their interaction — based on historical fact — has not only resonance but ramifications in the present: One of Yezhov’s followers is a young KGB man with a striking similarity to Putin. Poetically treated, this improbable-but-true bit of history becomes the basis for a worldview, weighing juxtaposed parallel legacies — the artist’s and the censor’s, the creator’s and the bureaucratic killer’s — as they’re handed down through an increasingly complex world.

Heather Velazquez (left) and Namir Smallwood in “Pipeline,” which explores ways of learning and teaching.

Every play we honored this year turns out to contain some version of the same dialectic between caring and cruelty, and each also reaches back, in its own way, into its characters’ pasts. Amy Herzog’s Mary Jane and Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline both deal, heartbreakingly, with mothers, struggling against a nightmarish world for their children’s survival. Both, intriguingly, are filled with non-malevolent secondary characters, eager to help, to do the right thing, or just to be there. That what they say and do brings no surcease underscores the nature of the world their central figures are battling. The outcomes are at best equivocal; our society isn’t promoting easy victories these days, and our playwrights know better than to paste up false ones that send the audience home with its anxieties soothed — another point on which playwrights take issue with the commercial theater’s premises.

At least three of the four fascinating characters in Abe Koogler’s Fulfillment Center do end on a note of hope, but it’s a decidedly tentative one. Like Mary Jane and Pipeline, Fulfillment Center uses one aspect of contemporary life as the focal point for an image of our society’s troubled condition. In Mary Jane it’s healthcare — the endless bureaucracy, the elaborate anonymous machinery, the constant encounters with strangers (caregivers or fellow patients) in a similarly disoriented state. In Pipeline, the focus is education — ways of teaching, ways of learning, and the way either privilege or its lack can impair even the brightest student. Fulfillment Center, as its title implies, takes place at the point where our new virtual consumerism seems most surreal: people in an anonymous warehouse in the middle of a desert, plucking random goods manufactured elsewhere to ship to unseen customers equally far away. Like the goods, the characters come from all over, bringing the disparate fragments of their various pasts with them. There’s occasional sharing, but no real common culture.

Aleshea Harris’s Is God Is, conversely, presents the reverse view: The characters share common cultural assumptions but are so displaced in their relationships that there’s absolutely no hope. This story of personal revenge for a long-ago crime ends in a heap of corpses, framed in a flurry of moral questions and doubts about the rightness or wrongness of revenge that, like the highly stylized writing, keeps the gut feeling at the play’s core in an equivocal position. We live in a time when we hardly know how justified our anger is, let alone what we should do about it. The murderous fury of the twin sisters in Is God Is has obvious justifications, but that never wholly seems to make it right, and it often seizes on undeserving targets: One of the play’s principal comedy scenes involves their killing a crooked lawyer who’s already in the process of committing suicide when they confront him — an irony not dissimilar to those that crop up in the tangled histories of Describe the Night.

The moral questions and doubts of “Is God Is” are presented through highly stylized writing.

These weren’t by any means the year’s only commendable plays Off-Broadway. Our list was so crowded that Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living, which carried off the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, barely got a look-in. Neither did the 86-year-old Adrienne Kennedy’s dense, elliptical miniature He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, though its designers are receiving a joint Obie for the remarkable beauty they were able to unpack from its deep-buried substance. I could easily list a dozen more plays that, in a less fertile season, would have ranked higher, from the sharp-edged wit of Sarah Burgess’s Kings to the gaudy outrageousness of Robert O’Hara’s Mankind. We harvested a bumper crop Off-Broadway, while the high-priced midtown theaters were largely making do with revivals and lavish musicals based on recent movies or animated TV-toons.

Even while reveling in our profusion of playwrights, I’m not entirely happy with that division of the spoils. I think more of our writers should get a crack at the big money, and that the uptown audience that’s apparently willing to shell out for a somewhat edgy Obie-winning musical that transfers to Broadway (Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, The Band’s Visit) could — maybe with a little lowering of the ticket prices — be getting regular dispatches from downtown playwrights. This segregation by potential profit doesn’t strike me as the best way to run a city’s or a nation’s theatrical culture, any more than the segregation by salary level on which the party in power currently bases its political procedures strikes me as a good way to run a country. But I firmly believe that, in both areas of our life, this bad idea is not going to last. The need for money will always be with us, but the accumulated cultural power that’s piling up everywhere in our theater except on Broadway will ultimately become too great to withstand. Finding five playwrights to honor Off-Broadway this year was so astonishingly easy that I won’t be surprised if next year there are ten. And by then, money may well have started to slide away from the center of the debate, with art and what art says to the audience taking its place.