New York

Like a Local: 10 Essential Off-Broadway Theaters in NYC

by Christopher Kompanek  |  Published March 29, 2016

There’s no city like New York (except possibly London) when it comes to theater. From the grand Broadway stages that announce their presence with glittering billboards to tiny black box spaces tucked away in brownstones and warehouses, there are compelling stories being told on practically every block if you know where to look.

Lincoln Center Theater, LCT3 (Photo: Francis Dzikowski)

Lincoln Center Theater, LCT3 (Photo: Francis Dzikowski)

Most visitors never venture off the Great White Way. Below are ten Off-Broadway theaters that consistently produce top-notch thought-provoking work.

Playwrights Horizons

This pristine two-theater space focuses solely on new work. Its 45-year history includes impressive premieres like “Sunday in the Park with George” and recent Pulitzer Prize winners “The Flick” and “Clybourne Park.” Located just west of Times Square, their shows usually address an aspect of the American dream and topical issues at the heart of the national debate.

416 West 42nd St

St. Ann’s Warehouse

St. Ann's Warehouse (Photo: Pavel Antonov)

St. Ann’s Warehouse (Photo: Pavel Antonov)

Located in industrial chic Dumbo, St. Ann’s Warehouse’s expansive space is conducive to their wide breadth of programming which includes a yearly puppet theater festival, Labapalooza. With a bent towards the experimental and international, this essential theater brings the world to Brooklyn.

45 Water St

Manhattan Theatre Club

Tucked underneath City Center and a stone’s throw from the famous Carnegie Deli, Manhattan Theatre Club’s pair of basement spaces have an intimate and well-worn feel that echo their half-century history, which has included early Sam Shepard premieres and performances by a young Robert De Niro when he was a struggling actor. More recent highlights include Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Ruined” set in the worn-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

131 West 55th St

Signature Theatre Company

Founded in 1991 by James Houghton, this unique theater began by devoting an entire season to the works of playwrights like Edward Albee and John Guare. After moving into a beautiful Frank Gehry-designed three-theater space complete with bookstore and café a few years back, they have expanded their programming to include new works. All tickets for initial runs are just $25, making it one of the best bargains in the city.

480 West 42nd St

Soho Rep

Michael Shannon in Uncle Vanya at Soho Rep (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Michael Shannon in Uncle Vanya at Soho Rep (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

With only 73 seats that are reconfigured for each production, Soho Rep is one of the smallest spaces off-Broadway. Artistic director Sarah Benson uses this to the theater’s advantage by transforming the entire space, including the tiny bar downstairs and the even smaller entranceway. Whether she’s covering it in sand or building risers to create a lecture hall feel, each production is a thrilling journey into a fully realized world.

46 Walker St

The New Group

Ethan Hawke and Cynthia Nixon among others have chosen this first class company to try their hands at directing. Hawke also starred in their acclaimed revival of David Rabe’s “HurlyBurly.” Controversial playwright Thomas Bradshaw made his off-Broadway debut here, signaling this is not a theater afraid of risks. Their current home is inside the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Productions happen at Signature space, 480 West 42nd St

New York Theatre Workshop

Home to the original productions of “Rent,” “Once” and David Bowie’s farewell musical, “Lazarus,” New York Theater Workshop has one of the best track records in the city. This East Village space covered in exposed brick vacillates between musicals and plays with aplomb. Director Ivo Van Hove has done some of his most impressive work here, including a revelatory adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage.”

79 East 4th St

Lincoln Center Theater: LCT3

Lincoln Center Theater exterior (Photo: Francis Dzikowski)

Lincoln Center Theater exterior (Photo: Francis Dzikowski)

One of the oldest and most storied New York cultural institutions is also home to the city’s coolest black box theater. LCT3 features a massive terrace overlooking the grounds of Lincoln Center and a mission to produce new work. Highlights include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Disgraced,” which later transferred to Broadway. $30 tickets leave room to try a locally sourced cocktail or two from their extensive bar menu.

150 West 65th St

The Public Theater

Founded by the outspoken producer Joe Papp in 1954, The Public Theater is a quintessentially New York institution housed in the former Astor Library in the East Village. The massive space is most famous for premiering the musicals “Hair” and “A Chorus Line” but their record with plays is equally impressive. Highlights include Richard Greenberg’s epic “Take Me Out” and Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” a searing portrait of the AIDS crisis in the 80s.

425 Lafayette St

Ars Nova

This Hell’s Kitchen gem combines the look of a cabaret with the soul of a black box, producing plays, musicals, comedy acts, and cabaret performances that can barely be contained on its postage-sized stage. Dave Malloy’s ebullient “War and Peace” revision called “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”, which is heading to Broadway this fall, premiered here.

511 West 54th St