Downtown Dramatics II: Playwrights Horizons

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Image via symphonyspace.org

Disclaimer: Playwrights Horizons isn’t downtown. In fact, its home is right in the theater district on 42nd Street. However, I consider this an honorary downtown theater company, and the productions coming out of this off-Broadway venue are changing and inspiring what new plays can look and feel like.

The founding of Playwrights Horizons at its current location has a complex history, as it stands on and helped create “Theater Row.” In the 1970s, the strip of 42nd Street between 9th and 11th Avenues was rife with the depravity characteristic of Times Square in the 1970s. With brothels, a live burlesque house, and other seedy destinations, Playwrights Horizons was the first to initiate renovation and revitalization in the area, establishing a headquarters in a burlesque house in 1975 and subsequently drawing more theater companies to the area. Today, the blocks are filled with theaters, including the official “Theater Row” complex, which is home to six smaller theaters.

The commercial successes of Playwrights Horizons over the past few years have included Annie Baker’s much-loved and Pulitzer-winning play “The Flick” from the 2012-13 season, and Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s “Violet,” which found success with Sutton Foster on Broadway in 2014 but started out at Playwrights Horizons in 1997. Although proud of these accomplishments, Playwrights Horizons tends to focus on new works that may not have commercial appeal, but give playwrights and directors room for innovation and experimentation.

The three shows comprising the first half of Playwrights Horizons’ 2015-16 season have been completely diverse in content, form, and casting. “The Christians” by Lucas Hnath kicked off the season, and its structure was unprecedented. The entire play was delivered as a sermon, creating a production full of commentary on the complexities of religion and a uniquely isolating, interactive, and affecting viewing experience. “Hir” written by popular downtown performance artist Taylor Mac covered a plethora of evolving and often tricky social dynamics. A young man returning home from war finds his family transformed into a neurotic uber-feminist mother, a transgender sister-turned-brother, and a father completely debilitated from a stroke. “Hir” was at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, a much smaller space a few floors up from the mainstage, making it an incredibly intimate performance. “Marjorie Prime” by Jordan Harrison was a compelling, futuristic meditation on coping with grief, filled with stunning design choices and a chillingly plausible plot.

Next up this season is “Familiar”, written by Danai Gurira (the same playwright behind the Broadway-bound “Eclipsed”). This recently opened play tells the story of a midwestern Zimbabwean family dealing with the intersection of a wedding, assimilation, and African traditions. After her success with “Mr. Burns,” Anne Washburn returns in March with “Antlia Pneumatica” in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, a play about a group of friends reunited through mourning. Closing out the main season in May is “Indian Summer” by Gregory S. Moss which, by description, seems like a classic summertime boy-meets-girl love story, but knowing Playwrights Horizons, is sure to surprise.

Another significant attribute of Playwrights Horizons is their eagerness to get young theatre makers and lovers in the building. Their Young Membership program is free, and all members get $15 tickets to every show. Additionally, for the majority of the shows in its season, they host talkbacks and 30 & Under Nights. Having been to a few of these Young Members parties, they’re extremely fun, filled with free food, drinks, a photobooth, and occasionally, fun extras that relate to the show (at the party for “Hir,” they had feather boas, wigs, and signs for the photobooth, as well as a face painting station). All in all, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t take the uptown train to Playwrights Horizons.

Bonus Fun Fact(s): This is indeed the mothership of the Playwrights Horizons Theatre School at NYU Tisch. Also, Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical “Sunday In The Park With George” premiered at Playwrights Horizons in 1983.

For more information, visit playwrightshorizons.org.

Emma Gold is a staff columnist for the Highlighter.

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