New York notes

You need to go off-off Broadway to find a reflection of today's America

When Broadway is devoted to musicals, and the best that off-Broadway has to offer is Mia Farrow in a permanent coma, you need to go off-off-Broadway to find plays reflecting contemporary American appetites and anxieties. The equivalent of Britain's fringe was pioneered by innovators such as the Wooster Group. Poor Theatre, their latest production, suggests a return to their bohemian roots in a homage to the Polish theatrical pioneer Jerzy Grotowski and the radical American choreographer William Forsythe.

Ironically, it demands expensive high-tech video to create the hall of mirrors into which Elizabeth LeCompte's production descends, as the cast simulate themselves on a research trip to Grotowski's theatre lab in Opole, and then try to match word and image with a video recording of his epic Akropolis. In part two, Scott Shepherd becomes Forsythe in a simulacrum of a Forsythe lecture demonstration, with the three other cast members as his dancers. Forsythe's methods and opinions were so challenging that his company was shut down in 2004. Grotowski is dead, Forsythe's Ballett Frankfurt disbanded, but the Wooster Group's wit and complexity have kept these performers ahead of the game.

Uptown, off-off-Broadway has the equivalent of a multiplex at Theatre Row, five new studio theatres under one roof. Kissing Fidel, in the 99-seater Kirk, does not quite live up to the promise of its title, but Eduardo Machado's comedy attempts to scratch the irritation of Castro.

A family of bourgeois Cuban exiles is gathered in a Miami funeral parlour to mourn the passing of their matriarch, but the gathering is disrupted by the arrival of their black sheep. He (like Machado) left Cuba as a child, and now, as a successful novelist, he wants to return and reconcile himself by kissing Fidel. The family is more shocked by this than by his bisexuality, but it is not long before its anti-communist solidarity is riven by revelations of homosexuality and incest. Machado muddles Greek tragedy with Cuban comedy, but raises important issues.

After Theatre Row, Greenwich Village, with its grunge boutiques, feels very old-fashioned. You can still buy punk fanzines and anarcho-syndicalist reviews. But theatrical experiment is still alive in Misha Shulman's Desert Sunrise, which showed more political engagement with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict than George Bush ever has.

As a former Israeli soldier Shulman, who writes and directs, has authority to evoke the bleak lives endured by Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills. He engineers a night-time encounter between a shepherd and a lost Iraqi-Jewish soldier, who discover a common language in English. Unpredictably, the two men overcome their natural hostility and find mutual sympathy in their difficulties with women. But events turn tragic when the girl the shepherd hopes to marry turns up.

She is as angry at the restrictions placed on her as a Palestinian woman as she is at the humiliations and cruelties of Israeli occupation. She dies, literally but also symbolically, in the consequent crossfire. Throughout, she has been shadowed by the gauzy figure of a dancer, an attempt by Shulman to enlarge the dramatic dimensions of the piece that works less successfully than the choric contributions of Yoel Ben-Simhon, who accompanies the action on guitar and oud. That Ben-Simhon is an Israeli Jew of Arab Moroccan parents underlines the cultural links, as well as fractures, that Desert Sunrise sets out to illuminate. Off-off-Broadway shows no signs of going off.

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The debt pandemic