Review: Off Broadway Is a Dark Satire of…Off-Broadway
Robert O'Hara directs Torrey Townsend's Zoom comedy about institutional theater during the pandemic.
The past year has been pretty brutal for live performance, and (unsurprising in the world of drama) it has provoked a chorus of voices warning of the impending death of the American theater. In Torrey Townsend's Off Broadway, a cranky literary manager dismisses this hysteria: "Theater's been around for millennia. It's gonna be fine." And, of course, she is right. The theater will survive and thrive through 2021 and beyond — but your theater is another story.
The troubled not-for-profit at the heart of this story is the American National Theatre (ANT), a fictional institution we are meant to see as a competitor with the Public or Playwrights Horizons. The action unfolds through a series of Zoom calls among the administration's pandemic skeleton crew (80 percent of positions have been furloughed).
Business Manager Andy (Dylan Baker) is preparing to take the reins from Founding Artistic Director Daryl (Richard Kind, playing Oskar Eustis at 3am after a fifth of Johnnie Walker). This will mean a reshuffle of responsibilities for Literary Manager Marla (Jessica Frances Dukes), Development Director Betty (Becky Ann Baker), and Executive Assistant Steph (Kara Wang). "Uber-slick Press Rep" Garrick (Jason Butler Harner) will continue to look pretty while attempting to wring positive coverage out of The New York Times with his artfully dishonest press releases. You know he's going to be busy after you see what goes down over the course of several months of shutdown. Oh, and the theater is $2.6 million in the red.
Townsend has a real talent for blood pressure-raising dialogue and explosive vulgarity. With characters like the off-stage playwright Blaze Jackinhoff and the briefly onstage philanthropist J.P. Fister (a delightfully loopy Hal Linden makes a cameo as the namesake of ANT's Fister Theater), you sense that this is a playwright not afraid to offend — or so it would seem.
Townsend is carving out a niche for himself as the foremost dramatist of backbiting politics at America's elite theatrical institutions. His 2017 play, The Workshop, depicted a contentious dramatic writing seminar at a prestigious university (Townsend holds an MFA from Columbia). In Off Broadway he exposes the palace intrigue awaiting these overeducated professional artists once they secure positions within venerated institutions (a phenomenon cliodynamicist Peter Turchin chalks up to elite overproduction, as more and more bourgeois children compete for fewer and fewer prestige jobs). Most viciously, Townsend sends up the corporatization of the American theater, as troupes that were founded to create art transform into companies primarily concerned with self-preservation — which necessarily means soliciting donations from the kind of people who have seen their wealth expand during the pandemic.
While institutional mission drift and office politics are themes that can be appreciated by a wide audience, Off Broadway will be most interesting to people who already have an insider's view of the not-for-profit theater (my husband, who works in property management, nodded off within the first five minutes).
That's unfortunate because under the direction of Robert O'Hara (Bootycandy), this cast delivers the best Zoom performances I have yet witnessed. The Bakers play a compelling Lord and Lady Macbeth, with Dylan Baker giving a particularly horrifying and emotionally erratic performance (his self-pitying, white-hot man-baby rage triggered my PTSD). This is in sharp contrast to Wang's practiced poker face, which still manages to tell us so much. Dukes delivers some of the saltiest language of the play with perfect relish: "We are working under a dictatorship," she opines to Steph, "First we had Mussolini and now we have fucking Hitler."
With so many great things going for it, why isn't Off Broadway a more exciting play? Some of it has to do with Townsend's unwillingness to slaughter certain sacred cows of the theater (and really, American liberalism). There are subplots about #MeToo and Black Lives Matter (or as Andy calls it with forced vacuity "Black Life Matters"). There are clear villains (who are old and white) and clear victims (who are young and not white). And a late suggestion that the theater attempt to engage with the 47 percent of Americans who voted to reelect Donald Trump (or as they are commonly called in Manhattan, "white supremacists") is treated with the instant derision everyone knows it deserves — everyone, that is, except the straw men who run ANT. I somehow doubt Off Broadway will ruffle many feathers off-Broadway.
So while it seems awfully ballsy to pen such a "scathing critique" (to borrow a phrase printed under the video stream) of the very people to whom Townsend will have to submit his scripts, Off Broadway actually represents a shrewd career move. Rather than blacklisting the playwright, I suspect that America's literary managers (masochists that they are) will line up to say, "Thank you sir, may I have another?" Such self-flagellation can only serve to prove their edginess and relevance to the Fisters of the world, who will continue to reward them with their huge endowments. The circle of life continues on the American stage.