Tina Benko and Elizabeth Marvel in "The Little Foxes" showing...

Tina Benko and Elizabeth Marvel in "The Little Foxes" showing at the New York Theatre Workshop on Oct. 31, 2010. Credit: Jan Versweyveld

Before the tapping of big Broadway feet drowns out all other theater noise for the foreseeable future, it seems fair to steal the spotlight for these Off-Broadway enticements.


IVO VAN WHO?

Just who is Ivo Van Hove and why is this crazy-brilliant Flemish director messing with the heads of American theater again?

For the sixth time since 1997, the wild and often wondrous explorer (some say plunderer) of the hallowed and the classic is down in the East Village at New York Theatre Workshop - his home-away for his love-hate adventure with skeptical theatergoers. And for the fourth time, he is working with Elizabeth Marvel, the unfathomably gutsy New York actress who has already gone to the brink for him as a naked Blanche DuBois held underwater in a bathtub in "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1999 and, five years later, as a lethally disturbed Hedda Gabler in a pink silk slip and a deeply erratic, ferocious, intelligent funk.

Now Marvel will be his Regina Giddens, the avaricious, carnivorous force of nature in a revival - let's say a rethinking - of Lillian Hellman's 1939 melodrama, "The Little Foxes." It is impossible to say how much Hellman will be recognizable, but, then again, that also could have been said about the Elizabeth Taylor travesty on Broadway in 1981.

Van Hove, still a troublemaker at 51, is artistic director of the largest repertory company in The Netherlands. For his New York debut, he turned Eugene O'Neill's "More Stately Mansions" into a thoroughly demented but enthralling piece of radical expressionism. The stakes were higher with "Streetcar," one of the few uncontested masterworks of our theatrical literature. The results seemed less revelatory at the time, but I still can't get them out of my mind.

How does Van Hove have a major presence in this country when so many avant-garde American directors are ignored? James Nicola, artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop, persuasively mentions his "acuity of vision on American culture, history, literature and art - partly due, I suppose, to his not being an American. By delving deeply into the subterranean core of American cultural artifacts, he strikingly reveals unexpected, authentic truths about our lives and times."

I love the idea that Van Hove directed "Rent" in Europe. Wonder how his version's "subterranean core" would look here at the little theater where the show began.

"The Little Foxes," in previews before Tuesday's opening, New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. Fourth St., through Oct. 31, $70; 212-279-4200, ticketcentral.com.


A GREATER 'GATSBY'

What are the chances that a word-for-word, 6 1/2-hour (7 3/4 hours with dinner break) reading of "The Great Gatsby" would turn into one of the hottest Off-Broadway tickets of the season?

We speak of "Gatz," which has been extended twice before it even starts previews next Sunday at the Public Theater. This unlikely project, created and developed by New York's audacious Elevator Repair Service, has been a smash in Europe and around the country since 2006.

As I understand it, F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel is the material of a play about a low-level office worker who finds a copy on his grim desk and, out of boredom, begins to read it aloud. Eventually, co-workers join him and the story unfolds. According to director John Collins, "Our shows have always been about trying to dramatize what seems impossible, ridiculous or just wrong to put

onstage. Others have used this novel for films and plays, but we wanted to preserve its bookness - make it into theater without turning it into a play. We set out to do this as a big experiment . . . happily, it worked."

Oskar Eustis, the Public's artistic director, says, "The appetite for this remarkable show has surprised even those of us who have long loved it." Loving it long, clearly, is part of the deal.

"Gatz," previews begin next Sunday for an Oct. 6 opening, Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., through Nov. 28, $140; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org.


RE-FRAYN

How did the tiny Keen Company manage to capture Michael Frayn, one of the world's gold-standard playwrights, for its 10th anniversary season? Frayn, after all, is the author of "Noises Off," arguably the funniest backstage farce ever written. In 2000, Broadway producers dared to import his "Copenhagen," the scientific mystery speculation about the great minds and human emotions that produced the atomic bomb. Four years later came "Democracy," which turned 10 men talking about West German parliamentary politics into a gripping entertainment about Cold War machinations and the global effects of divided loyalties on individuals and nations.

Frayn, obviously, does not need the Keen, an Obie-winning company whose unblushing mission is to produce "sincere plays." But artistic director Carl Forsman read all of Frayn's plays last year in the hope that, as he puts it, "there might be one I didn't know but thought I should. Imagine my delight when I fell in love with not one but two. And imagine my double delight when he agreed to let us devote the year to celebrating his wit, courage, smarts and heart. . . . It's a great match for Keen, where we try to champion the struggle to do what's best."

That struggle has resulted in the Sept. 28 American premiere of a revised version of "Alphabetical Order," a 1975 comedy about chaos in a provincial newspaper office in the '70s - presumably inspired by Frayn's early career as a journalist. Perhaps even more astounding is that, next spring, Keen will stage the 25th anniversary production of "Benefactors," which starred Glenn Close and Sam Waterston on Broadway in 1985.

In "Copenhagen," Frayn managed to make us thrill to implications of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal, which states that a particle changes by the very act of being observed. You know, just like theater.

"Alphabetical Order," in previews for a Sept. 28 opening, Clurman Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., through Oct. 26, $59.57; 212-239- 6200; keencompany.org.