If you browse through the Drama section at Barnes & Noble, you'll find the shelves stuffed with anthologies. Anthologies of the work of famous playwrights, anthologies of favorite monologues, anthologies of 10-minute plays, anthologies of gay plays, anthologies of plays about women -- the list is endless. Yet you won't find many collections specifically dedicated to work being done on the theatrical fringe. Martin Denton -- the man who runs nytheatre.com, one of the few theater websites that cover the Off-Off Broadway scene extensively -- has been working to change that with his "Plays and Playwrights" series, now in its fourth year.

For the 2003 edition, published by The New York Theatre Experience, Inc., Denton has chosen 11 plays that made the rounds Off-Off B'way last year. The $15 anthology is a durable paperback, without pictures but beefy with information. The individual plays are prefaced by author biographies, information on where and when the plays were originally produced, cast lists, and in some cases, character and scene breakdowns and authors' notes. Mario Fratti (Nine) provides a foreword to the volume, and Denton, in his informative introduction, thoughtfully explains his reasons for choosing each work for inclusion. Though any reader -- yours truly among them -- will contest a few of Denton's choices, it's pleasing to see an editor so personally enraptured by and committed to the work he is presenting.

There is something for everyone in this collection, which runs the gamut from blistering comedy to harrowing drama. If you don't like the silliness of Marc Morales's Galaxy Video, you may enjoy The Ninth Circle, Edward Musto's play about brooding, cold-hearted New Yorkers who realize that their lives are a yuppified version of Dante's inferno. Shakespeare fans may be intrigued by Nat Colley's The Doctor of Rome, fashioned as a sequel to The Merchant of Venice, while those who appreciate what the author describes as a "drama/comedy dealing with life, death, friendship, and other light subjects" might prefer Kelly McAllister's Last Call, which played the NYC Fringe Festival last year.

The book is surprisingly short on experimental theater, the most unconventional offerings being Maggie Cino's poetical Ascending Bodily (a one-woman piece about a bag lady) and Joseph Langham's freewheeling, farcical Out to Lunch. Most of the plays are one-acts of varying length, though there are briefer pieces like Catherine Gillet's post-9/11-themed Pumpkins for Smallpox and a handful of full-length plays such as Leon Chase's dysfunctional family drama The Last Carburetor, one of the finer entries in the collection.

A Queer Carol, the first selection in the book, could be considered the headliner. This play, a spirited and touching gay version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, has been presented at the Duplex Cabaret Theatre in NYC for two years in a row, which is a pretty big deal by Off-Off Broadway standards. Both productions have had a "name" performer in Dan Pintauro, the former Who's the Boss? star who has been making his mark on New York's downtown theater scene over the last few years.

Kip Driver and Dan Pintauroin A Queer Carol(Photo: Ron Peaslee)
Kip Driver and Dan Pintauro
in A Queer Carol
(Photo: Ron Peaslee)
Also noteworthy is the mixed-race romance Black Thang, about a woman who is neurotically insistent on keeping a promising one-night-stand from turning into something serious. It's a rather typical tale of modern disconnection, but Ato Essando's characters are lively and engaging and his vivid dialogue is often raunchy and laugh-out-loud funny.

My personal favorite in the anthology is Andrea Lepcio's Looking for the Pony, a devastating short play about two sisters who go through the terrifying process of discovery, diagnosis, and treatment when one of them discovers she has a large, malignant lump in her breast. This dizzying and heartbreaking work moves at a breakneck speed and makes one think of a streamlined, triple-time version of Wit; it reads so well that the theatrical experience itself must have been something extraordinary.

Not all of the plays collected here have such a profound effect. But, in providing us with this wide array of subjects and styles, Martin Denton has put together a good argument for the variety and quality of work being done Off-Off Broadway. Theatergoers who seldom venture beyond the Broadway theater district might want to pick up this volume and get a taste of what they're missing.

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[Ed. Note: More information about Plays and Playwrights 2003 can be found here.]