WSWD Fall Theater Preview

Theater expert David Cote narrows down the dozen Broadway and off-Broadway shows you must catch this autumn.

Photo by Ahron R. Foster, courtesy of The Band's Visit

Some people live for summer. Others get romantic in spring. Me, my pulse quickens in the fall. The arts season begins: Dance groups, theater companies, and museums kick off new shows, and yes, the kids troop back to school—giving you more time to culture vulture.

On Broadway, at least, you don’t have the high density of flashy new musicals that crowd the scene in March and April, vying for Tony Award nominations. I like to think of fall as the smarter older sister, patient and thoughtful. Here are 12 of the most interesting shows I found playing on Broadway and off in the next four months.

The Wolves

One of last year’s most exciting playwriting debuts was this tale about a girls’ indoor soccer team by Sarah DeLappe. You wouldn’t think that a 90-minute observational drama in which a group of teens stretch, gossip, and practice their dribbling and goal defense would be terribly dramatic, but it was. Part of the reason was DeLappe’s baroque, overlapping dialogue, which revealed character and conflict in quick, sidelong bursts. Plus, the utterly organic staging by hot young director Lila Neugebauer kept you glued to the little details. Now Lincoln Center Theater has welcomed the show into the Newhouse for a fall reprise. The all-female ensemble is outstanding.

Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 West 65th Street (at Lincoln Center), Upper West Side
Previews start Wednesday, November 1; opens Monday, November 20

The Portuguese Kid

John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck) has a relationship with Manhattan Theatre Club that most playwrights can only dream of. MTC has presented a dozen of his works over the years. This one is the latest, and it stars Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame playing a lousy lawyer from Rhode Island who gets mixed up with a Greek “serial widow” trying to settle her most recently deceased husband’s affairs. Shanley directs his own romantic comedy.

Manhattan Theatre Club
131 West 55th Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues), Midtown
Previews start Tuesday, September 19; opens Tuesday, October 24

Jesus Hopped the “A” Train

The city has really changed since Stephen Adly Guirgis’s gritty, metaphysical prison drama roared onto the scene in 2000. Lots more chain stores. A lot less crime. And the rent is too damn high. But Rikers Island remains a place of tragedy and torment, so we can still appreciate this profane (and sacred) character study of men in detention there, trying to grab redemption any way they can. Angel is a bike messenger who shot a cult leader in the butt. Lucius is a self-proclaimed “child of God” and, er, serial killer. Other characters include a sadistic prison guard and an exasperated lawyer. We can’t wait to see how this raucous downtown hit has aged.

Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street (between Ninth and Tenth Avenues), Hell’s Kitchen
Tuesday, October 3–Sunday, November 12

The Band’s Visit

I highly recommend this musical with a fragrant, Middle Eastern–tinged score by David Yazbek and a deadpan-funny book by Itamar Moses. It played last season off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company, and its transfer to Broadway is great news for anyone who cares about smart, complex musicals. David Cromer’s direction is perfectly understated and naturalistic; you’ll forget it’s a musical. It’s based on a 2007 indie film by director Eran Kolirin. An Egyptian police band gets lost in dusty, small-town Israel. The locals and foreigners get to know one another over a sweet, befuddled evening. The cast features one person you know—Tony Shalhoub as the no-nonsense bandleader. But the real find is the beautiful and soulful Katrina Lenk, who plays a café owner burning for romance and escape.

Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street (between Broadway and Eighth Avenue), Midtown
Previews start Saturday, October 7; opens Thursday, November 9

SpongeBob SquarePants

Full disclosure: This cultural phenomenon passed me by. I don’t have kids; I don’t DVR Nickelodeon; I generally don’t get stoned and watch cartoons. Having said that, I am totally tickled by the creative team behind it. This live-action stage musical was conceived by Tina Landau, usually known as an experimental theater person. The book is by Kyle Jarrow, a guy who once wrote the book, music, and lyrics to a downtown cult hit called (deep breath) A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant. If that doesn’t pique your interest, there are original songs by Sara Bareilles, Lady Antebellum, the Flaming Lips, John Legend, Cyndi Lauper, and others. I hope you’ll join me under the sea!

Palace Theatre
1564 Broadway (between West 46th and 47th Streets), Midtown
Previews start Monday, November 6; opens Monday, December 4

M. Butterfly

Brilliant casting or daringly counterintuitive? You wouldn’t automatically cast British sex symbol Clive Owen as a romantically confused guy. But here he is playing Rene Gallimard, a French civil servant attached to the French embassy in China in the 1960s. Rene falls in love with a Chinese opera diva, Song Liling, who—spoiler alert!—is actually a female impersonator. (In traditional Beijing opera, female roles were taken on by men.) Visionary director Julie Taymor (The Lion King) helms this revival of David Henry Hwang’s 1988 hit about gender deception between the East and West. Expect oodles of Asian spectacle.

Cort Theatre
138 West 48th Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues), Midtown
Previews start Friday, October 6; opens Thursday, October 26

Once on This Island

The beloved composer-lyricist team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens is currently represented on Broadway with the Soviet-era romantic mystery Anastasia. Now they’re dusting off a 1990 piece about another plucky young woman with romantic woes. Based on the 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy, Once on This Island is set in the French Antilles archipelago in the Caribbean. Peasant girl Ti Moune falls in love with a gentleman, but the match is forbidden in her class-based, racially divided society. Ahrens’s book draws on Romeo and Juliet for the star-crossed angle and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid for supernatural twists. The sweeping and inspiring tale is directed by Michael Arden, last on Broadway with the Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening.

Circle in the Square Theatre
1633 Broadway (at West 50th Street), Midtown
Previews begin Thursday, November 9; opens Sunday, December 3

People, Places & Things

British playwright Duncan Macmillan tackles addiction in this acclaimed play, coproduced by the National Theatre and Headlong, and directed by Jeremy Herrin (Wolf Hall). Emma (Denise Gough) drops out of a production of The Seagull and checks herself into rehab. Can she beat her demons through role-play and group therapy, or will her cynicism and dependence on booze and drugs win out? The play goes beyond the easy answers of the recovery genre. Gough is reportedly amazing; she took home a 2016 Olivier Award playing a woman whose life is spinning out of control. Bravo to St. Ann’s Warehouse for bringing over a work we might not otherwise get to see.

St. Ann’s Warehouse
45 Water Street, Dumbo
Friday, October 19–Monday, November 19

Farinelli and the King

“Music has charms to soothe a savage breast,” so wrote English playwright William Congreve. A new play, set a few years after he died, puts that notion to the test. In Claire van Kampen’s period piece, Spain’s King Philippe V suffers from what today we’d call bipolar disorder. His worried wife, Isabella, travels to London to hire the famous castrato Farinelli, hoping his ethereally high singing will restore her husband’s wits. It’s always fascinating to see an actor play a mentally disturbed person coming to their senses, and I’m doubly excited that the afflicted monarch will be portrayed by Mark Rylance. If you saw this singular, utterly charismatic performer in Jerusalem or the Shakespeare double bill done in “Elizabethan original practices” (Twelfth Night and Richard III), you know what a genius he is. He can be quirky, weird, scary—but never boring.

Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues), Midtown
Tuesday, December 5–March 25, 2018

Prince of Broadway

If you know anything about Broadway musicals, you know Harold Prince is a god. His output as a producer and director is unprecedented: From producing 1954’s The Pajama Game to directing this tribute to himself, he’s helped steer such celebrated musicals as West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Evita, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, The Phantom of the Opera, and more. This retrospective show will include numbers from all those classics.

Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street (between Broadway and Eighth Avenue), Midtown
Through Monday, October 22

Time and the Conways

If you’ve been suffering from Downton Abbey withdrawal syndrome, consider this Roundabout Theatre Company offering a big ole shot of methadone. Elizabeth McGovern—yes, Cora Crawley, Lady Grantham—stars in a revival of J.B. Priestley’s 1937 family drama that covers a period similar to Downton (post–World War I). The show is directed by a recent Tony winner, the brilliant Rebecca Taichmann (Indecent).

American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street (between Seventh and Eighth Avenues), Midtown
Thursday, September 14–Sunday, November 19

Measure for Measure

Downtown theater troupes are like rock bands: Some lead brilliant but short lives, others keep rocking on. Elevator Repair Service belongs to the latter category; it specializes in deconstructing classics and mashing them up with found text or complex sound design and choreography. In recent years, the company has staged verbatim sections or entire novels by Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. It had to get to Shakespeare eventually—and it chose his morally caustic “problem comedy” about piety, the law, and lechery. ERS prime mover, John Collins, directs this high-velocity version that includes slapstick inspired by the Marx Brothers.

The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street (between Astor Place and East 4th Street), East Village
Sunday, September 17–Sunday, November 5

Feeling a little theatrical this fall? We can save you some of the best seats in the house

Return to our Fall Guide 2017