Each April, while numerous Broadway shows race to officially open in time to meet the eligibility deadline for the Tony Awards, many Off-Broadway companies, concerned about being overlooked during this especially busy period, wait until after April ends to present their latest productions.
That being said, doing an Off-Broadway show immediately after the end of the Broadway season can be very challenging since it requires competing for attention with Tony Award Nominations news and a highly saturated Broadway market.
During May, I caught three exciting, rich, and very different new plays presented by major not-for-profit Off-Broadway companies: Samuel D. Hunter’s “A Case for the Existence of God,” James Ijames’ “Fat Ham,” and “Ana Nogueira’s “Which Way to the Stage.”
A Case for the Existence of God:
“A Case for the Existence of God” is a small play that is catching on with theatergoers in a particularly big way. Not only has its limited run been extended three times, it won the 2022 Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best New Play – even though it officially opened mere days before the award was given.
With graceful direction by David Cromer, the reflective 90-minute two-hander begins as a business meeting about a home loan between a mortgage broker (Kyle Beltran) and a factory worker (Will Brill), who discover that they went to high school together and that their young daughters attend the same daycare center, and becomes a deeply-felt meditation on friendship, loss, and heartbreak. It is an understated yet haunting production that deserves an even longer run or a commercial transfer.
Signature Theatre, 480 W. 42nd St., signaturetheatre.org, through June 5.
On the other hand, “Fat Ham” is a contemporary adaptation of “Hamlet” in which Hamlet (now known as Juicy) is a black queer youth from the South who reluctantly takes part in his family’s backyard barbeque. It manages to be both boisterous (with charades, karaoke, and a fantasy drag finale) and unequivocally tenderhearted.
The play came to attention during the pandemic thanks to a well-crafted filmed version created by the Wilma Theater of Philadelphia. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama mere days before the Off-Broadway production (produced by the Public Theater and National Black Theatre) began previews.
As it happens, “Fat Ham” is not only adaptation of “Hamlet” in town. One can also see Brett Dean’s operatic adaptation at the Metropolitan Opera. And later this month, a nearly four-hour London production of “Hamlet” – the play itself – will play the Park Avenue Armory.
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., publictheater.org. Through July 3.
Which Way to the Stage:
Ana Nogueira, who wrote “Which Way to the Stage,” is also a TV and stage actress. And two decades ago, she and I both went to French Woods, a theater camp in Upstate New York – and so did Max Jenkins, the lead actor of “Which Way to the Stage.” I fondly remember acting in “City of Angels” with Nogueira and “Fiorello!” with Jenkins.
The play (which is named after the entrance line of Maureen in the hit musical “Rent”) is an affectionate but critical-minded comedy that examines musical theater super-fans, struggling actors, the audition process, the art of performance, and how people misunderstand and misjudge each other. It begins with two friends waiting outside the stage door of the short-lived 2014 musical “If/Then,” hoping to get Idina Menzel’s autograph, and ends with a drag club performance of the climactic “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy.”
“Which Way to the Stage” was packed at my performance with an unusually young crowd. It would not surprise me if the play becomes a favorite among college theater groups, which are full of students who will surely relate to the play’s themes and pick up on its numerous musical theater references.
MCC Theater, 511 W. 52nd St., mcctheater.org, through June 5.