Although Broadway was frantically celebrating itself this month, Off-Broadway took advantage of the lull in new work to get some serious attention for itself. Here are three of the high-profile openings.
"Storefront Church," Atlantic Theater Company,
336 W. 20th St.; $65; 212-279-4200;
When "Doubt" opened Off-Broadway in 2004, we could not know that we had begun an extended journey with John Patrick Shanley, an intended trilogy about the conflict of state and church on America's power grid.
Two years, one Pulitzer and a Tony later came "Defiance," another 90-minute fist of a drama -- the less-celebrated middle piece -- which took on the U.S. military, racism and fundamentalism with rare compassion and old-fashioned craft.
"Storefront Church," the long-awaited final work in the cycle, is different from the first two in many ways. This one contrasts with its predecessors in more ways than just its length -- which is a half an hour longer and includes an intermission. What is missing is moral ambiguity and the firm sense of direction, both literally and in its themes.
The first two were staged by Doug Hughes. Shanley, who did a marvelous job directing the 2008 movie of "Doubt," stages the new work himself. Alas, the meandering, slack work suggests the director and the playwright needed more genuine conflict in their collaboration.
The acting is strong and the setting -- the Bronx at the start of the 2009 mortgage crisis -- is certainly timely. There also is a hilarious and heartbreaking performance by Zach Grenier, whose fall from hotshot businessman to bank worker seems more original and provocative than the main event.
Giancarlo Esposito is slick and sympathetic as the Bronx borough president, an ambitious, smart fellow who, when we first meet, thinks he's juggling the need for jobs with the need for a community center. He thinks he has the ethical upper hand in a deal with the slick bank president (Jordan Lange), but must face his own truths when the bank tries to foreclose a building owned by friends, a mismatched, initially delightful interracial couple (Bob Dishy and Tonya Pinkins). The pair has taken out a second mortgage to support a ground-floor church for a depressed Pentecostal minister (Ron Cephas Jones). The minister, a Katrina survivor, is emotionally paralyzed because "there's a big black hole in the road." The politician gets the church open and the house saved, but finally understands the price.
The capitalist is a really bad guy. The couple is way too cute. She keeps calling her balloon mortgage a "maroon mortgage." The best parts are very brief scenes in the park. But these are scenes in which nobody talks. This is not a good sign.
On a happier note, the Atlantic, itinerant during the $8.3 million renovation of its old church theater, now has a comfortable, handsome playhouse. Welcome home.
It hurts to have to report that "Rapture, Blister, Burn," Gina Gionfriddo's first new work since "Becky Shaw" in 2009, is also a disappointment. Unlike that emotionally daring, splendidly written Pulitzer
finalist, this one feels superficial, improbable and recycled.
This is especially painful because Gionfriddo has taken on the grossly underserved subject of funny, self-challenging, troubled women -- three generations of them in what some now call our post-feminist world. Catherine (the subtle and enormously enjoyable Amy Brenneman) is a successful author and scholar -- supposedly "the hot doomsday chick" who pontificates on TV about raunch feminism.
She has taken a sabbatical to take care of her ailing mother (a pithy-sweet Beth Dixon), returning to the New England college town where her graduate-school chums (Kellie Overbey and Lee Tergesen), now married underachievers with kids, look with envy at Catherine's life. Naturally, or not, Catherine and the wife -- who stole Catherine's boyfriend -- decide each one wants the other's life. They aren't just admitting jealousy. They decide to trade places. Meanwhile, a brilliant, rebellious young female student (the terrific Virginia Kull) sort of learns from them all.
Oh, dear, not the career-versus-family thing again. I'm not pretending the conflict has been solved in any way. Despite Peter DuBois' lively and intelligent direction, however, there is no disguising that play uses the smart history of modern feminism as a cover for the same old dilemma. Gionfriddo tosses in many fascinating subjects -- the death of privacy, the rise of degraded entertainment and torture porn -- without linking them in real ways to her fundamental old question. Any one of those could make a more compelling play than this one.
"Food and Fadwa," Noor Theatre, New York City Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St.; $65: 212-279-4200; nytw.org.
The Noor Theatre, the new company dedicated to telling stories about the Middle-East and about Middle-Eastern Americans, has opened its valuable residency at New York Theatre Workshop with this very conventional but sensitively drawn and engrossing family drama by Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kader.
What makes this unconventional is that this happens to be about a Palestinian-Christian family living in Israeli-
occupied Bethlehem -- basically the third rail when it comes to American storytelling. After a somewhat awkward start, director Shana Gold's richly acted production draws us into the heart of the home where Fadwa (Issaq) looks after her mentally failing father (Laith Nakli). It is the week of her sister's wedding, and Fadwa, a wonderful cook, is preparing the food.
But Fadwa isn't merely cooking. She is fantasizing herself as the host of her own cooking show, an amusing, then sorrowful device that takes us beyond the chaos, the joy and tragedy of these people -- some of them moving, or having moved, to America for a better life. As the wedding day gets closer, so do the soldiers and the bombs and the curfew, until we can see how the bustling home is also a prison. Nobody is doctrinaire. Just human.