NEW YORK — Broadway steals a lot of the theatrical thunder as a new season kicks into high gear. But work of a high order, especially in the category of nonmusical plays, crops up all over New York’s off-Broadway circuit this time of year. Follow along for a tour of some of the worthier dramas playing all over the city.
“What We’re Up Against”: Prolific playwright (and “Smash” creator) Theresa Rebeck teleports us back to 1992 for a comedy-drama that could not feel timelier. Set at a snake pit of an architectural practice drawing up plans for a shopping-mall extension, “What We’re Up Against” at first seems to have its sympathies squarely in the corner of Eliza (Krysta Rodriguez), a brilliant newcomer frozen out of plum assignments by men of the firm who are threatened by her uncompromising standards.
Ah, but Eliza is also arrogant, impolitic and dismissive of Janice (Marg Helgenberger), the only other female architect, who has cultivated a role for herself by yessing the misogynistic, alcoholic boss (Damian Young) to death. The office dynamics lay out the conflict for a powerful woman: Play along submissively or prepare to be waylaid by stigmatizing gossip and arbitrary roadblocks.
Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s production for Women’s Project Theater is all jagged edges, reinforced by the sharp performances of Rodriguez, Helgenberger, Young, Jim Parrack and Skylar Astin, the last two as competitive hotshots of varying temperament. Rebeck lets no one off the hook here, and that’s the joy of the riveting “What We’re Up Against”: As in many stories of oppression, the play’s natural allies turn on each other. In that sense, the proceedings also work as an allegory for the aligned political forces of today that end up devoting more energy to internecine feuds than to combating real enemies.
Through Dec. 3 at WP Theater, 2162 Broadway, New York. Visit wptheater.org/tickets, or call 212-765-1706.
“The Wolves”: The lives and after-school activities of nine sports-minded teenage girls are revealed with entertaining insight by playwright Sarah DeLappe, director Lila Neugebauer and a team of young actresses who know these characters like the backs of their matching jerseys. The social rituals, neuroses and disorders of adolescence in the 2010s come to the fore in the pre- and postgame vignettes DeLappe conjures. Though the players are almost exclusively identified by the numbers on their uniforms, an audience feels at the end of 100 minutes as if it has gotten an intimate schooling in who each of the girls is and the pressures they face — self-imposed or otherwise.
The production in Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse space is a faithful restaging of the version Neugebauer mounted, with the same cast, in other, smaller off-Broadway spaces last season. (In January, Washington’s Studio Theatre will produce its own version of the play, directed by Marti Lyons). Laura Jellinek’s set, an expanse of plain green artificial turf that rolls up the back wall, gives the impression of a vast indoor soccer arena in the suburbs, devoid of personality — until the young women enter to fill it with their anxiety-driven energy.
You’re bound to recognize a few kids you know on that stage; that’s how persuasive are the writing and acting. It is a fool’s errand, singling out any of these performers as superior to any others. The best way to honor exemplary ensemble work is to name them all: Susannah Perkins, Paola Sanchez Abreu, Jenna Dioguardi, Sarah Mezzanotte, Midori Francis, Tedra Millan, Samia Finnerty, Brenna Coates and Lizzy Jutila. (Mia Barron plays the sole adult.) This makes for grand teamwork, on and off the field.
Through Jan. 7 at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th St., New York. Visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.
“People, Places and Things”: Portraying an actress of multiple addictions and unending excuses, Denise Gough bowled over London audiences in playwright Duncan Macmillan’s story of the wages of drug use. Now, she’s doing the same at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, in a production that’s directed with admirable technical and imaginative resourcefulness by Jeremy Herrin.
The cycles of recovery and relapse are not exactly a novel topic, and “People, Places and Things” suffers dramatically at times from the nagging sense that we’ve seen a lot of this before. But Macmillan applies an intriguing overlay that takes into consideration the working life of Gough’s character, Emma. Trained in the art of pretending, Emma turns the residential treatment center where she is repeatedly detoxed and compelled into group therapy into an extension of the theater. If an addict’s word can’t be trusted, what does one do with the promises of someone who is paid to deceive?
Gough is the potent centrifugal force of the proceedings — she won an Olivier Award in London for the portrayal — and she gets some expert support, especially from Barbara Marten, who portrays all of Emma’s cautious and caring therapists. Set designer Bunny Christie and video designer Andrzej Goulding deserve plaudits, too, for an inventive physical concept that draws us compellingly into Emma’s orbit.
Through Dec. 3 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 45 Water St., Brooklyn. Visit stannswarehouse.org or call 718-254-8779.
“Office Hour”: Julia Cho wants us to think about America’s collective responsibility for the emotionally hollowed-out young men who turn to guns to avenge their perceived slights and purge their benighted souls. While her play “Office Hour” at the Public Theater sometimes spells out her plea too prosaically, the drama is an undeniably chilling and absorbing cautionary tale detailing an explosive level of aggression festering in some men whose boiling points prove impossible to detect.
Much of the 90-minute play, directed by Neel Keller, is set in the shared university office space of Gina, an adjunct English professor played with a persuasive undercoat of steel by Sue Jean Kim. Gina has given herself the possibly foolhardy assignment of getting through to Dennis (Ki Hong Lee), a student with a weapons obsession who is so shut down that he can barely bring himself to speak. The more enlightening moments, though, are the ones during which Gina is invited to sit down with two of Dennis’s frustrated former instructors, David (Greg Keller) and Genevieve (Adeola Role), for a briefing on the student’s violence-laced writings and menacing classroom behavior.
Are teachers and other mentors equipped in any way to deal with the broken and dangerous people placed in their paths? (The play recalls some aspects of the 2007 shooting attack at Virginia Tech, in which 32 people were killed by a lone gunman, Seung Hui Cho.) The scene in which Kim struggles to reach Dennis — who arrives with a black backpack containing a you-know-what — reveals how tragic it is that a sympathetic stranger might be handed human dynamite with no good strategy for defusing it.
Through Dec. 3 at Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. Visit publictheater.org or call 212-967-7555.
“School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play”: Together with Sarah DeLappe (“The Wolves”), the freshest off-Broadway voices right now belong to young women creating exuberant characters for other young women. In the case of this MCC Theater production at Greenwich Village’s Lucille Lortel Theatre, the writer is Jocelyn Bioh, conjuring in spirited fashion the pupils of an all-girls school in the Aburi mountains in central Ghana. Which, judging from the backbiting, backstabbing and nasty territoriality that are hilariously in evidence, might be a school in any American suburb.
Bioh, a New York stage actress, manages in 65 economical minutes to reveal incisively not only the personalities of a gallery of young African women but also that mischievousness and self-consciousness are universal teenage attributes. The story, expertly directed by Rebecca Taichman, a Tony winner this year for Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” concerns a visit to the academy by a former Miss Ghana (the superb Zainab Jah), who is scouting for candidates for this year’s pageant. Two girls of equal intensity but opposite temperament are the front-runners: amiable American Ghanaian transfer student Ericka (Nabiyah Be) and the self-dramatizing school bully Paulina (MaameYaa Boafo), whose outrageous bravado masks a whole lot of insecurity.
The classmates Paulina cruelly lords it over — and wryly played by Paige Gilbert, Nike Kadri, Mirirai Sithole and Abena Mensah-Bonsu — tease us with a few details of their own interesting backstories. If there’s any major deficiency in “School Girls,” it’s that you’re left feeling as if you want to know them even better. “The African Mean Girls Play” is that rare evening that might benefit from being longer.
Through Dec. 30 at Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., New York. Visit mcctheater.org, or call 866-811-4111.
“The Last Match”: Sports plays have a ready-made asset — the dramatic structure that the arc of a game naturally supplies. Playwright Anna Ziegler capably takes advantage of this characteristic in her drama about a tennis champion (Wilson Bethel) in the Roger Federer vein who’s in danger of being dethroned by a talented Russian upstart (an excellent Alex Mickiewicz).
As a pair of scoreboards record the progress of their match on opposite walls of Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre, “The Last Match,” directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, also documents some of the downside of this sort of enterprise: predictability. Someone wins, someone loses, and the companions who egg them on, played by Zoë Winters and Natalia Payne, are on hand to add the requisite emotional texture to the players’ one-track athletic lives.
Ziegler, author of the more absorbing “Photograph 51,” about the overlooked English DNA researcher Rosalind Franklin, does have some entertaining observations about the psychology of a championship U.S. Open match. Set designer Tim Mackabee creates an environment that makes you feel as if you’re out in Flushing Meadows, in Arthur Ashe Stadium. But that only goes so far. I found myself glancing a little too often at the scoreboard, impatiently waiting for the final serve.
Through Dec. 23 at Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., New York. Visit roundabouttheatre.org or call 212-719-1300.
“Illyria”: As he did in his wonderful stage series “The Gabriels” and “The Apple Family Plays,” dramatist Richard Nelson again gathers a group of actors around a table for a nibble on worldly and provincial concerns. Nelson’s previous dinnertimes mixed politics and family matters. The beautifully staged “Illyria” is about politics and plays.
Or more to the point, the politics of the theater. It’s a story set in 1958 and centered on Joe Papp, founder of the Public Theater, where Nelson has been given the job of staging this piece. The issues at hand will enthrall students of the art form — in particular, the desire of Papp, embodied splendidly by John Magaro, to keep to his vision of free Shakespeare in Central Park. You would think that such an idea would appeal broadly to the politicians of the day. But no, as this takes place in the McCarthyite era of deep suspicion of political motive. Nelson recounts how Papp and his partners and acolytes faced formidable opposition to a Shakespeare-for-all philosophy that reeked to some opponents of — God forbid — socialism.
Theatergoers in the know will recognize the names of some other real-life characters around the table, several of whom went on to big theatrical careers: actress Colleen Dewhurst, portrayed by Rosie Benton, is among the members of Papp’s lively circle. (Kristen Connolly, Fran Kranz, John Sanders and Naian González Norvind also turn in exceptionally well-sculpted performances.) The play’s title refers to an ancient land reimagined by Shakespeare in “Twelfth Night” — an apt allusion for a passionate if somewhat imperious modern-day showman who dreamed up his own artistic nirvana.
Through Dec. 10 at Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. Visit publictheater.org or call 212-967-7555