January 2, 2010

The Best Theater of 2009



By this time, you’ve probably had it with looking back at the past year and decade.  Me too.  And yet, being the compulsive theater junkie that I am, I can’t help giving one more ovation to the great shows of 2009.  So I’ll keep it short.  As in the past, I’m not going to pretend to choose the best plays of the year but simply the ones that reminded me why I love theater as much as I do.  Now, here’s a final hurrah to my favorite shows (you can click on the titles to read my original reviews) and my deepest thanks to all the people who made them happen.

The Brother/Sister Plays. Believe the hype about 29 year-old playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney.  His multi-generational trilogy about a poor black Bayou community in Louisiana that played at the Public Theater this fall marked the arrival of a truly original voice that I can hardly wait to hear again.

Brief Encounter. I’m a sucker for inventive stagecraft and the British Kneehigh Theatre’s adaptation of the old David Lean movie about an affair between two middle-aged people that ran at St. Ann’s Warehouse whipped together everything from video projections to vaudeville routines to create sheer theatrical enchantment.

circle mirror transformation. Without big names or flashy direction, this small play about a group of misfits who take an acting class may be the best example I’ve ever seen of how theater really can change lives. In fact, Annie Baker’s play and the incredibly talented ensemble that brought it to life were so terrific that Playwrights Horizons brought them back for an encore that runs through Jan. 17.

Exit the King. I’m not usually a big fan of the theater of the absurd but Geoffrey Rush was sublime in Eugene Ionesco’s tragic farce about a dying monarch and I will remember the glorious last moment of this production until I take my final breath.

Giant. The musical adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel about a wealthy Texas family that got its world premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia wasn’t flawless but
Michael John LaChiusa’s score is magnificent and the show’s four hour running time passed more quickly—and was a hell of a lot more entertaining—than many one-acts I saw last year. 

Incident at Vichy. This drama about a group of men awaiting their fate in an interrogation center in Vichy, France isn’t Arthur Miller’s best work but the performances by the uniformly outstanding—albeit little known—cast in this production by The Actors Company Theatre made this one of the highlights of my theatergoing year.

Next Fall. Too few plays tackle big subjects like faith but the Naked Angels production of Geoffrey Nauffts’ drama about the romantic relationship between a proudly gay atheist and an in-the-closet evangelical does so with such sensitivity, humor and an integrity that refuses to settle for easy answers that it’s moving to Broadway in the spring.

Next to Normal A musical about a woman with bipolar disease doesn’t sound like it would be a great time but Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey have created a show that is heartbreaking, uplifting and filled with songs that are still playing in my head seven months after I first heard them.

The Norman Conquests. The revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s interlocking comedies about the twisted relationships in an extended British family worked on every level from its circle-in-the-round sets to its crackerjack cast. Seeing all three plays in one day is one of the most memorable theatrical experiences I’ve ever had.

Ruined.  Praise and honors—including the Pulitzer Prize—have been heaped on Lynn Nottage’s drama about a group of women struggling to survive after having been sexually ravaged by soldiers on both sides of the Congo’s civil war. And the play deserves all of them. Nottage, aided by a top-notch cast at the Manhattan Theatre Club, created a masterwork that engages, educates and entertains. 

A Streetcar Named Desire. Cate Blanchett and Liv Ullmann brought a feminist sensibility to the great Tennessee Williams’ classic that made the 60 year-old play fresh again during its too-brief run at BAM so it’s heartening to hear that there’s talk of a return trip to Broadway. 

The Temperamentals. Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which are usually credited with starting the gay rights movement, but, using just five actors and a few chairs, the Barrow Group production of Jon Marans’ play took a sensational look back at the late ‘40s when a small band of courageous men dared to challenge discrimination against homosexuals.  


2 comments:

Esther said...

I agree about The Norman Conquests. And I wasn't even going to see it until I read your review. It just sounded like so much fun, such a unique experience. And it was! I loved the whole cast but Stephen Mangan as Norman especially won my heart. He was a character I was prepared to dislike before he appeared on stage, just from some of the other characters talking about him. But Mangan made him so funny and sweet and lovable, despite his flaws!

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