Doomsayers aside, there's life in Off Broadway yet

NEW YORK — In Gotham, the only legit tradition more universal than predicting Tony winners is trying to pinpoint the date theater will die forever. Since Broadway receipts have been healthy of late, the dire warnings have shifted to Off Broadway, where the current wisdom is that countless stages will soon be dark unless someone replaces recently closed moneymakers like “Jewtopia” and “Slava’s Snowshow.”

But despite the dread prophecies, salvation may not be hard to find. A sizable number of emerging Off and Off Off Broadway companies are showing signs of serious longevity.

Take the Keen Company, known for sensitively interpreting older work. Group spent six years downtown before landing a permanent home this season at midtown’s Theater Row complex. The highly visible digs increased awareness of a well-received revival of 1950s melodrama “Tea and Sympathy” and a lyrical adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s novel “Theophilus North.” The latter will continue to boost Keen’s notoriety when it remounts this summer at Vermont’s Dorset Theater Festival, also headed by Keen a.d. Carl Forsman.

The Transport Group has had similar luck with forgotten chestnuts, generating buzz for its innovative spin on sixth season closer, William Inge’s “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.” Equally experimental originals, like 2005 musical “The Audience,” have nabbed awards-season attention for masterfully using heightened images and movement.

On the other side of town, Classical Theater of Harlem has only been around since 1999, but it has sent several Shakespeare productions on national tours. Plus, the company’s aggressively physical aesthetic and ethnically diverse casting have wooed many patrons above 125th Street to see heady classics from Genet, Ionesco and Beckett.

CTH’s 2004 revival of tuner “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” led to a short commercial run Off-Broadway, pegging them as a company with heavyweight potential.

The Civilians might also become major players. Since 2001, the theater has produced original musicals from historical documents and personal interviews conducted by company members. Their reputation has spread to London — where Soho Theater mounted philosophical comedy “(I Am) Nobody’s Lunch” — and Washington, D.C., where Studio Theater will preem religious-themed “This Beautiful City” in 2008.

The troupe’s major Gotham moment arrives on June 14, when “Gone Missing” makes its commercial bow at Barrow Street Theater. A meditative tuner that features the words of real New Yorkers contemplating loss, the show could push the Civilians to a new professional peak while possibly convincing legiters that there’s still life in Off Broadway yet.

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