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Discovering gems at New York’s off-Broadway theaters

Buyer & Cellar stars Michael Urie at the Barrow Street Theatre.

Sandra Courdert

Buyer & Cellar stars Michael Urie at the Barrow Street Theatre.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

I scored tickets — and good tickets at that — to one of the final performances of Bette Midler’s one-woman Broadway show “I’ll Eat You Last.” I was so excited that I purchased a new ensemble for the evening and my entourage posed for pictures in front of the Booth Theatre marquee. Facebook friends expressed just the right amount of jealousy when they spotted the picture.

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But star power and Facebook bragging rights come with a price, and the final tally for this Friday night of entertainment was $250 (plus those pesky “service charges”). I’m certain the cost of the ticket was more than my new outfit. Playing Hollywood agent Sue Mengers, Midler was both brassy and occasionally vulnerable, particularly as her character waited for a call from star client Barbra Streisand. It was worth both the cultural and sartorial investment, I told myself. This was Midler’s first time on Broadway in 40 years.

Because I was in New York for the weekend, I decided to buy a ticket for a show the following night as well. Midler tested the limits of my credit card, so I decided to go for something a bit more low-key (that’s code for cheaper). I bought a ticket to an off-Broadway show called “Buyer & Cellar.”

I spent the next day in Brooklyn visiting friends, and the time got away from me — meaning I was shopping yet again. Curtain time for “Buyer & Cellar” was 7:30 p.m. But at 6:45 I was still in Brooklyn dressed like a slob. I nearly skipped “Buyer & Cellar.” But instead I changed into the clothes I had just bought and made a mad dash to the theater. I was seated at 7:35, and the show began immediately thereafter.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. This was not a Midler show, but a one-man Michael Urie show (he played the vampish Marc St. James on “Ugly Betty”). It’s the story of a man who is hired to work in Streisand's basement, where she has created a space that resembles a multi-store mall.

And here’s the fact that I’m afraid to confess: I liked “Buyer & Cellar” more than Midler’s diva fest. Oh, and the ticket was a third the price. Urie, playing both himself and Streisand (but not as an over-the-top impersonation), was sensational.

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And while I’ve seen many off-Broadway shows before, “Buyer & Cellar” — which, by the way, you should see because it runs through January — was one of the most enjoyable. That night in June renewed my resolve to catch more off-Broadway shows. And as the new off-Broadway season begins this fall, you can see A-list celebrities such as Mary-Louise Parker, Debra Messing, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Blythe Danner in shows that cost less than a pair of Prada trousers.

“Artistically speaking, I think it’s a thrilling time for off-Broadway,” Mandy Greenfield, artistic producer of Manhattan Theatre Club said. “I think now more so than ever there’s a real appetite in New York City for authentic, bold, interesting work that brings you closer to the ideas and the artists who are going to shape the world ahead. And I think that work happens off-Broadway.”

So I went back to New York last month to see more of this authentic boldness. In one weekend, I went to five shows. I don’t think I paid more than $100 for a ticket — one was a mere $20 — and I had a ball.

Think of off-Broadway as indie cinema to Broadway’s big-budget multiplex of familar names.

When I mentioned to friends that I was going to New York for an off-Broadway weekend, their first response was “Are you going to see ‘Kinky Boots?’ ” I would explain again that I was seeing off-Broadway shows, and they’d respond, “So you’re seeing ‘Jersey Boys?’ ’’ For the record, Merriam-Webster defines off-Broadway as “a part of the New York professional theater stressing fundamental and artistic values and formerly engaging in experimentation.” The true definition of this actually has to do with the number of seats in a theater (100 to 499, depending on whom you ask).

Rachel Klein, director of the off-Broadway interpretation of “Around the World in 80 Days,” says she sometimes finds it surprising that audiences rush to big budget shows when they come to New York.

“These are the same shows that tour in cities around the country,” she said. “I understand that people want to see them on Broadway, that’s part of the experience. But there’s something very unique about off-Broadway shows. These are the kinds of things that you’re only going to see here.”

As promised, “Around the World in 80 Days” was not close to anything I’d seen in another city. There were five actors playing 39 characters traveling across the globe at speeds faster than the dearly departed Concorde in this interpretation of the Jules Verne classic. Eighty days condensed in two breathless hours. It was absolutely goofy and charming. I was smitten.

Not all of my off-Broadway explorations were as fruitful as “80 Days.” I went to see a friend performing in a very small show near Times Square. Because I want to maintain our friendship, I’m not going to disclose the name of the show or friend (the show has since closed), but it was terrible. For the record, the friend was great. But my investment was $20. It was the cost of a cocktail, and the hangover was less severe.

“There’s no question for an audience member that you are taking a chance when you go off-Broadway,” said James Nicola, artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop. “You’re going into a gigantic research-and-development world. You might not see something that’s particularly fascinating, but you might see an actor in that show who years later you’ll spot in a major Hollywood movie.”

Nicola said Calista Flockhart made her first big splash in a New York Theatre Workshop show called “Mad Forest.” Off-Broadway, he says, is a breeding ground for actors, directors, and writers to hone their craft.

It’s also a place for them to try edgier work. Parker and Danner will co-star in the Amanda Peet-written (yes, that Amanda Peet) play “The Commons of Pensacola.” The show begins previews Oct. 22. Also, currently playing is “Becoming Dr. Ruth: An Unexpected Journey,” with actress Debra Jo Rupp (“The ’70s Show”) as the straight-talking Lilliputian sexpert. Neil Patrick Harris is directing (but not acting in) the show “Nothing to Hide.”

The closest I came to celebrity encounters was a show called “Women or Nothing” at the Atlantic Theatre Company. It was penned by Ethan Coen (of the Coen Brothers) about a lesbian couple that tricks a male friend into helping them conceive a baby. I’m pretty sure the mom from “Orange Is the New Black,” the Netflix drama, was part of the cast, but I was too focused on the story to figure it out. “Women” was smart, dark, and helped me forget about the $20 and two hours of my life I lost trying to be a good friend at the previously unnamed show.

I also used part of my weekend jaunt to see Broadway shows that have since moved off-Broadway. I was never motivated enough to see “Peter and the Starcatcher” on Broadway. It’s for children, I thought. Or, It’s like the “Wicked” of Peter Pan. It was neither, but my procrastination let me see the five-time Tony-winning musical from the fourth row of the intimate New World Stages for less than $75.

“Starcatcher” began its life off-Broadway before moving up to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. It’s another advantage to exploring shows in development off-Broadway. The musicals “Once” and “Rent” both started at the New York Theatre Workshop before moving to Broadway.

According to Stephanie J. Block, an actress who is appearing in a musical remake of “Little Miss Sunshine” at the Second Stage Theatre, these shows are able to germinate in the fertile world of off-Broadway because unlike big-budget shows (we’re looking at you, “Spider-man’’) and celebrity-driven vehicles, there are not blocks of investors waiting to earn high sums back.

“There’s less pressure to look at the bottom line,” Block said. “So it’s a place where you’re going to find things that are a little more artistic. These theaters are like little treasures waiting to be discovered.”

I found that unexpected treasure on the last of my off-Broadway nights. I didn’t really know what to expect when I went to see “The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle” at 59E59 Theaters. In the play, a recently deceased and unassuming man named Eric Argyle is put in front of an unseen panel and shown key moments of his life (acted out with seven other performers playing multiple roles). Think “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but instead “It’s a Mediocre Life,” and the main character is already dead. It was beautifully written and executed. I found myself so moved that I was crying into my sleeve at the end.

It was worth the digging and the research. Sometimes the biggest risks yield the most satisfying results.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.

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