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Off-Broadway, the new play can still be the thing

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NEW YORK — That most sensational of all stage tricks — the ordinary made momentous — is being practiced for your immersive pleasure eight times a week this fall at the Public Theater, where the sterling pros of Richard Nelson’s new election-night drama, “Sorry,” plunge you into a thick family stew that feels as if it has been bubbling for years.

Actually, that’s not far off the facts: “Sorry” is the third of Nelson’s four planned plays built around the lives of the Apple siblings: three sisters (Laila Robins, J. Smith-Cameron, Maryann Plunkett) and a brother (Jay O. Sanders) caringly and crankily sharing middle age’s aches of body and heart. Along with Jon DeVries as their uncle Benjamin, a retired actor drifting into the void of senility, they were in the first two plays at the Public, “That Hopey Changey Thing” and “Sweet and Sad.” (A sixth character portrayed by Shuler Hensley is absent from the latest piece.)

With their help, “Sorry” — one of the best plays to emerge this fall in New York — affirms both the Apple cycle as the prolific Nelson’s most satisfying drama to date and the unalloyed joy of watching seasoned actors wearing roles as if cut for them in bespoke tailor shops.

Much has been said of late about a downturn in oomph off-Broadway, occasioned by economic shifts that favor producers who bypass smaller commercial playhouses and take shows directly to Broadway. But a sampling of New York’s autumn offerings, both on Broadway and off, reveals that the array of nonprofit institutions that now essentially define off-Broadway remain the preeminent havens in the city for the most important new plays.

Long ago known for a more bohemian ethos and pockets of thriving commercial venues, off-Broadway these days has settled on a model that has much in common with the regional-theater configurations of other major American cities, where subscription-style theaters dominate the landscape.

The Public Theater, Playwrights Horizons, Lincoln Center Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club, New York Theatre Workshop and Second Stage are the off-Broadway cornerstones, producing — like Arena Stage in Washington or Goodman Theater in Chicago — annual rosters for theatergoers, some of them buying seasonal slates. A couple of these produce work regularly on Broadway as well, though often the productions they mount there are revivals or plays tested elsewhere.

My point is simply that the birthing and presenting of new drama in this country has become almost monolithically the purview of the nonprofit groups; independent producers, the kind who nurture playwrights and straight plays from their inception, are virtually nonexistent. (Sometimes commercial producers are attracted to a hit at a nonprofit theater, or develop a production in conjunction with one.) This places a lot of pressure on big nonprofit companies here, as in other cities, to forge relationships with contemporary writers and ensure that their new work gets done.

The best of what I’ve seen this fall indicates that the pipeline for producing and presenting new plays in New York is not only intact, but also yielding significant art. That is certainly the case with “Sorry.” Presented as part of the company’s Public Lab series, which offers both new plays and classics for $15, Nelson’s play is the temperature-taking of a family, and the nation. Set on the day of the 2012 presidential election and peppered with up-to-the-minute references, the piece comes across as urgent and deeply felt, as it attempts subtly to place the country’s struggles in the context of one family’s emotional burdens.

Politics are discussed on the morning of Nov. 6 in the house in Rhinebeck, N.Y. where two of the sisters — Robins’s Marian and Plunkett’s Barbara — live. They are teachers who care for disoriented Benjamin. But the topic of who might be president is tangential to their more pressing concerns, such as whether Benjamin belongs in a nursing home, and how Marian is recovering from the suicide of her daughter, recounted in the previous play, “Sweet and Sad,” set on Sept. 11, 2011.

Eavesdropping on the Apples, who are visited by their siblings from Manhattan, Smith-Cameron’s Jane, a nonfiction writer, and Sanders’s Richard, a lawyer, was the most enjoyable hour and 45 minutes I spent in my survey of New York drama. The performances radiate a repertory-company ripeness, with Plunkett’s assaying of agitated Barbara, invested a little too deeply for her own good in Benjamin’s mental health, being a particular triumph.

But “Sorry,” directed by the playwright, was not the only high point. Across the river in Brooklyn, a new adaptation of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” imported from South Africa and rechristened in Afrikaans vernacular as “Mies Julie,” has pulses racing at St. Ann’s Warehouse, one of the city’s most dependable platforms for the vanguard of the form. St. Ann’s was, for instance, the key American showplace for the National Theatre of Scotland’s “Black Watch,” which subsequently visited Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company twice.

Director-adapter Yael Farber transfers Strindberg’s steamy story of a Swedish servant and his mistress to even steamier surroundings, a ranch in a desert of present-day South Africa, where restless Julie (a sensuously captivating Hilda Cronje) torments, bullies, cajoles and seduces farmhand John (the explosively physical Bongile Mantsai) under the anxious eye of his mother Christine (Thoko Ntshinga).

The raw emotion — and sexuality — of Farber’s production captures the essence of the lid coming off the resentments and taboos of the apartheid era. As a result, the play arrives here as perhaps the most meaningful evocation for Americans of the country’s racial politics since the heyday of the plays of Athol Fugard, author of “Master Harold . . . and the Boys” and “The Road to Mecca.”

The carnal contest between Julie and John has the tendency to exhibit a slightly purple as well as a blue dimension, but also thrillingly conveys a contemporary power struggle over post-apartheid claims to the land by blacks and whites. That conflict as a complex ancestral issue is brought powerfully to flesh here in the ethereal countenance of Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa, playing a ghost of the black South African past, a grunting and chanting one-woman chorus of doom.

In the city’s most recently completed, and in all ways inviting, space for new plays, Lincoln Center Theater’s Claire Tow Theater, a playwright of promise, Ayad Akhtar, has found an appreciative audience for his smart and invigorating “Disgraced.” The fairly conventional if highly engrossing social drama tells of a secular Muslim American corporate lawyer (Aasif Mandvi), married to a Christian painter (Heidi Armbruster) of Islamic images, whose career is convulsed by his naive foray into the case of an accused terrorist.

Built on the roof of Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater and opened in May, the 112-seat Claire Tow is even more intimate than the cozily spectator-friendly spaces of Washington’s Studio Theatre . It’s a lovely anchorage for the company’s LCT3 program, devoted to new plays — and incidentally, a useful model for what Arena Stage might be doing with its third theater, the Cradle.

In “Disgraced,” skillfully steered by director Kimberly Senior (and premiered in January by Chicago’s American Theater Company), Akhtar spins an engrossing yarn that compels us to look freshly at how an American professional reconciles his ambitions, passions and heritage, and how pervasive prejudices and personal failings might thwart him. Like “Sorry” and “Mies Julie,” it asserts off-Broadway’s role as a critical scenic overlook for the newest in what dramatists need us to see.

Sorry, written and directed by Richard Nelson. Set and costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Jennifer Tipton. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Dec. 2 at Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. Call-212-539-8500 or visit www.publictheater.org.

Mies Julie, written and directed by Yael Farber, based on “Miss Julie” by August Strindberg. Set and lighting, Patrick Curtis; music and sound, Daniel and Matthew Pencer. About 90 minutes. Through Dec. 16 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 29 Jay St., Brooklyn. Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.stannswarehouse.org

Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar. Directed by Kimberly Senior. Sets, Lauren Helpern; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; costumes, Dane Laffrey. With Omar Maskati, Erik Jensen, Karen Pittman. About 90 minutes. Through Dec. 23 at Lincoln Center Theater, 150 W. 65th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.lct.org.

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