Like candidates descending upon New Hampshire for a presidential primary, several big Broadway shows are arriving right before the end of the season. The danger is that some wonderful Off-Broadway theater might get lost in the shuffle, so here's a rundown of some shows outside of the Broadway arena that you should not miss.

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Arija Bareikis and Pamela J. Gray in Orange Flower Water(Photo © S. McGee)
Arija Bareikis and Pamela J. Gray in Orange Flower Water
(Photo © S. McGee)
Sweet Smell of Success

Orange Flower Water, by Craig Wright, is a piercing and unflinching examination of love. This is an artful play that revolves around people who are not themselves artful. There are four characters -- two married couples who live in a small Minnesota town. One of the husbands is a pharmacist, the other owns a video store. One of the wives is a teacher, the other is a housewife. There is nothing special about their lives or their loves; what makes it all special is the intense honesty of the piece. It begins with the writing, takes shape through the understated elegance of Carolyn Cantor's direction, and comes to life through the carefully modulated performances of Arija Barekis, Pamela J. Gray, Jason Butler Harner, and Paul Sparks. The acting is superb throughout.

This Edge Theater Company production at Theater for a New City is organic in its every detail. The four-cornered set by David Korins that envelops the audience like the four walls of a garden is smart and tasteful. There are four chairs at the corners of the floor space where the actors sit whenever they are not literally in the action. At the center of the stage is a bed, and one immediately gets the impression that the actors are the four posters of the marital bed. Sex plays a big part in the unfolding story, because it's about infidelity. It's also about unhappiness, retribution, and commitment. What makes it compelling, however, is that it doesn't push the melodrama but, rather, comes to a gentle understanding of the complexities of the human heart. Put simply, this is a play of grace.

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Auditions From Hell

Funny, insightful, and more than a little "inside," Sides: The Fear is Real is an elaborate series of comic sketches about auditioning for the theater. A 2003 Fringe Festival winner for Best Ensemble, the show features the six actors who wrote the piece out of their own hilariously horrifying experiences. Directed energetically by Anne Kauffman, with its sketches intelligently ordered for maximum effect, the piece is entertaining -- particularly to people who are in "the business." Yet the human comedy that plays out here is universal enough to appeal to any theatergoer.

The troop of Asian-American actors is appealing, and some of them are quite gifted. We'd like to make special note of Hoon Lee, who infuses his performance with a dignified vulnerability.

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L. Scott Caldwell and Vivienne Benesch in Going to St. Ives(Photo © James Leynse)
L. Scott Caldwell and Vivienne Benesch in Going to St. Ives
(Photo © James Leynse)
Two Actresses Get a Blessing

Lee Blessing's Going to St. Ives, at Primary Stages, is every bit as good as you've heard it is. The author sets up a breathtaking plot that sends moral imperatives spinning in every direction. A play about mothers and sons -- and life and death -- Going to St. Ives takes the theater of ideas and makes it come to life through its two starkly human characters. L. Scott Caldwell gives a powerful performance as the mother of an African despot who goes to England to be treated by a famous eye surgeon, played by the delicate but determined Vivienne Benesch. Their meeting is intended to cure one malady, but then the two of them form an alliance to help cure another.

The first act is riveting. The second act is less so, and it may ultimately be the actors who make this play so effective. Whatever the reason, it's very much worth seeing.

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Not So Hot

The title is Hot 'N' Throbbing, but the play is not. Paula Vogel's disappointment at the Signature Theatre offers a lot of heat and a lot of style but little in the way of genuine substance. A great cast including Lisa Emery, Elias Koteas, and Rebecca Wisocky is wasted in this overdone potboiler about a woman who writes screenplays for erotic films in order to support her troubled son and daughter while trying to keep her estranged husband away from the family. It may well be that the Signature Theater's season-long showcase of Vogel's work has proven this playwright to be a touch overrated.

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Jesse Pennington and Martha Plimptonin The False Servant(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
Jesse Pennington and Martha Plimpton
in The False Servant
(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
CSC Makes a False Step

You will find two wonderful performances in an otherwise plodding play at the Classic Stage Company. If you can sit through Marivaux's The False Servant, in a disconcerting translation by Kathleen Tolan, you will be rewarded by Martha Plimpton's consistently excellent performance and Bill Buehl's wry comic characterization.

The play is a wretched piece of business about a woman (Plimpton) who dresses as a man in order to find out if her intended husband is being untrue to her. Plimpton cuts a fine figure as a pretty young boy and has the inherent intelligence not to overplay the part. She is fun to watch, as is Buehl as her erstwhile servant. But in Tolan's scrambled translation, at least, the piece has little wit. Oh, how it makes you long for Molière!

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegels@theatermania.com.]