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.