Theater critics, when they pan a particular show, are often accused of hating the entire art form. I can’t speak for my possibly masochistic colleagues but, for me, that makes no sense. Every time I take my seat in the audience I do so with pleasure and with my mind prepared to engage and enjoy. The theater is where I have always felt safest and therefore most receptive to whatever new ideas might be on offer.
But I admit to certain prejudices.
I don’t like — in any medium except sometimes print — science fiction, fantasy or horror. I find it hard to excuse gratuitous depictions of violence. Jukebox musicals, monologues and hagiographies are not my favorite things. Except in last season’s “Fairview,” by Jackie Sibblies Drury, I have yet to experience any audience participation scheme that enhanced the effect of the play enough to justify its damage to my nerves.
And though I have no categorical allergy to movie adaptations, the wave of them inundating Broadway these days keeps me wary. If I didn’t like the original, the remake starts out at a disadvantage.
I do what I can to neutralize these prejudices: reading interviews that explain the playwright’s intentions, listening to old albums. It looks like I’ll be doing a lot of that this fall, because some of the most notable arrivals, on Broadway and off, trigger my category alarms.
Among them are two very different jukebox musicals (“The Cher Show” and “Girl From the North Country”), a horror spectacle (“King Kong”), a remake of a film I didn’t love (“Network”) and an interactive biography of an unimpeachable icon (“Gloria: A Life”).
And yet I find myself looking forward to all of them, in part to find out whether I might be nudged — or blasted — out of my comfort zone.
Normally, jukebox musicals require the most blasting. Last season’s examples — “Escape to Margaritaville” and “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” — did not inspire great confidence in the form. This summer “Head Over Heels” at least tried something clever in fitting songs made famous by members of the Go-Go’s to a 16th-century tale by Sir Philip Sidney.
“Girl From the North Country,” at the Public Theater, takes that approach to its extreme, and not just because the material it samples is of such unusual quality. (The jukebox here contains 19 Bob Dylan songs, from albums released between 1963 and 2012.) Conor McPherson, the author of terrific plays including “The Weir” and “Shining City,” has invented a story that avoids biography but also irrelevance.
Set in a guesthouse in Duluth, Minn., about a decade before Mr. Dylan was born there in 1941, the show is rooted in the same Depression bleakness that informed his art. It’s not about him, yet in a way it is; perhaps the solution to this riddle of a genre is to redefine it completely.
“The Cher Show” attempts no such redefinition; it’s a flat-out Cher biography using songs associated with her. And its big gimmick — dividing the main character into three personas representing different aspects of her story — has already had its thunder stolen by “Summer,” which botched the same idea.
Still, Babe, Lady and Star are better names than Diva, Disco and Duckling, and Cher is a better fit for a musical in the first place. Her pop-oriented material suits the needs of narrative better than Summer’s repetitive disco. And Cher’s stink-eye vibe has always undercut her glamour in a way that should play as less grand onstage.
Less grand is probably not what Global Creatures, the company behind “King Kong,” is going for. To begin with, the title character is a one-ton, 20-foot animatronic marionette, perhaps the largest puppet ever put onstage. And though I am generally not dazzled by showy devices, whether helicopters or temperamental Wagnerian machines, I find myself strangely eager to see how this gorilla looks — and acts.
If in its physical bigness this musical “King Kong” can really achieve big emotion, I’d forgive it almost anything. Operatic theatricality — one step over over-the-top — can short-circuit one’s critical facilities, and despite being a critic I value that.
Which is why I am keeping an open mind about “Network,” an adaptation by Lee Hall of Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay for the 1976 movie.
Though it won four Academy Awards and is now considered a classic, I don’t remember the movie fondly. On screen, its screamy satire seemed too blunt; in mocking the obvious stupidities of television it also mocked its viewers.
It may be that simply putting “Network” onstage solves the problem; in a theater, we are all in the same story. The play’s director, Ivo van Hove, no stranger to operatic gestures, knows how to play that up with his voyeuristic use of video, projections and simulcast scenes that implicate the audience. And Bryan Cranston, whose portrayal of Lyndon Johnson in “All the Way” was somehow both titanic and warm, seems like perfect stage casting to humanize the role of a newscaster pushed over the brink of madness.
In his review of the London production last November, my colleague Ben Brantley called Mr. van Hove’s production convulsive and immersive. I generally resist both convulsions and immersions but have to admit that, despite its unusually interactive nature, I’m drawn to “Gloria: A Life,” the new stage event — it’s not just a play — about the activist and feminist Gloria Steinem.
The first act is conventional enough: a six-person drama by Emily Mann about the peripatetic life of Ms. Steinem (the perfectly cast Christine Lahti) and the people and issues that shaped her. The second act, though, is described as a “talking circle,” in which the audience is expected to participate.
That’s terrifying, but I remind myself that I got through “Fairview,” which asked me to spend its last 10 minutes onstage.
Doing so was worth it, in part on its own terms — it drove home the play’s point — and in part because it pushed me to redraw my boundaries. In a similar way, ignoring my supposed tastes and predispositions, I have loved “Springsteen on Broadway” though I was not a Springsteen fan; the bloody (and immersive) horror of the recent “Sweeney Todd” revival; the one-man play “Harry Clarke”; parts of the Alanis Morissette jukebox musical “Jagged Little Pill” (directed, like “Gloria: A Life” by Diane Paulus); and Jordan Harrison’s science fiction drama “Marjorie Prime.”
That, in microcosm, is how theater works. Sometimes what you think you won’t like is what you love most.
Follow Jesse Green on Twitter: @JesseKGreen.