January 2, 2016

The Shows That Really Got to Me in 2015

Last year was a great year for theater. Lots of things to see. And lots of it good. Really good. And yet, as so often happens, a critical consensus has formed around just a few. The Humans, Hir, King Charles III, The King and I and A View from the Bridge appeared on just about every year-end best list I read (and, in my obsessive way, I read about two dozen of them). And, of course, everybody, including me, loved Hamilton.

But theater is a subjective experience. Friends at a holiday party asked my husband K and me what we thought of A View from the Bridge. We told them it had been a highlight of our theatergoing year. They sighed and said they hadn't like it at all.

So as I looked back at the 140 shows I saw in 2015, I didn't think about what was good or bad, which made lots of money or had short runs, whether they were done on Broadway or off. 

Instead, I just put a little asterisk next to the shows that, for one reason or another, punched me in the gut. Because, in the end, theater is a visceral experience.

As it turned out, there were 10 shows that really knocked me over. And in case you're curious, here, in alphabetical order, is that list:

Airline Highway: Lisa D'Amour's paean to the down-and-outers struggling to survive in her native New Orleans got to me because it's one of the few contemporary plays that treats people on the margins of society with dignity.

The Color Purple: It's impossible not to be moved by British actress Cynthia Erivo's powerhouse performance in this revival of the musical based on Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel as she transforms from an oppressed woman to one who learns how to love herself.

Constellations: British playwright Nick Payne’s metaphysical two-hander dealt with love, grief and the nature of existence, providing an acting challenge for its stars—Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson—and an experience that grabbed both my mind and my heart.

Eclipsed: The struggles in Danai Gurira's drama about women caught up in Liberia's 14-year civil war was not only superbly acted by a cast lead by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o but forced me to consider what choices I might make to survive.

Fun Home: The poignant performances by 11-year-old Sydney Lucas and the always-excellent Michael Cerveris in this Tony-winning musical version of Alison Bechdel's graphic novel about her coming out as a lesbian and her father's closeted life as a gay man broke my heart.

Guards at the Taj: Rajiv Joseph's sublime play about two lowly sentries standing watch at the unveiling of the Taj Mahal raised unnerving, but necessary, questions about the obligations of friendship, duty and the sacredness of art.

Hamilton: Yes, Lin-Manuel Miranda's retelling of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton's life has revolutionized the musical but his show is also a reminder of the passion, idealism and daring that went into making this country and it revived the patriot in me.

The Iceman Cometh: To be honest, I've slept through productions of this Eugene O'Neill classic about the denizens of a Bowery bar desperately holding onto the dreams they know they'll never achieve but the Nathan Lane-lead production at BAM last winter anchored the character's pain in a specificity that kept me riveted.

Skylight: Great performances can make you see and feel new things in a play and the sensational match-up of Carrie Mulligan and Bill Nighy in David Hare's drama about an attempted reconciliation between two former lovers brought home the gimlet-eyed truth that love isn't always enough.

A View from the Bridge: Arthur Miller wrote his plays as modern-day equivalents of Greek tragedy and director Ivo van Hove's revival strips this story of a good man's illicit obsession with his niece down to the essence of words, heroic performances and the blessing of the theater gods.

As I said, it was a great year. Now, here's wishing that the one ahead will be at least as theatrically rewarding for me and you.


Esther said...

I'm really glad I saw Airline Highway. It wasn't originally on my must-see list but positive reviews, including yours, convinced me. Plus I got a fairly cheap orchestra seat, around $50. I thought it was a really interesting slice of life play about people who've been thrown together and formed a community.

And I'm glad Eclipsed is transferring to Broadway. I already have my ticket for February.

I only saw A View from the Bridge at an NT Live screening and thought it was powerful, especially Mark Strong. It was also my first time seeing the play. I went back and watched some clips from the previous revival. Quite a difference!

Looking forward to another great year of theatergoing and reading your reviews!

Broadway & Me said...

Hey Esther, thanks for your kind words. I'm glad you got to see Airline Highway and wish more people had. What was your favorite show of 2015?

Anonymous said...

Good post.

Esther said...

It's hard to pick one favorite - I saw so many exhilarating, moving shows. But for sheer thrills, it's hard to beat Grounded at the Public Theater. I had a last-minute upgrade to the front row, so I was really close to Anne Hathaway the entire 90 minutes. She is so beautiful and I was captivated by her performance.

I saw two other one-person shows that also moved me a great deal - Benjamin Scheuer's The Lion, at the Merrimack Valley Rep in Lowell, Mass., and Jonny Donahoe's Every Brilliant Thing, at the Barrow Street.

And of course I loved Hamilton, The King and I, On the Twentieth Century, You Can't Take it With You. King Charles III was brilliant - so clever. The actors even looked like their royal counterparts.

I had a great year of theatre!

harry said...

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on all the shows you see. You are so fortunate to live in New York, with easy access to all the myriad shows that play there. I try to get down once every year or so for a theatre binge. I was fortunate to see Fun Home and On The Twentieth Century last spring. I loved both but for very different reasons. I also saw the NT Live broadcast of A View From The Bridge, here in Toronto, and thought it extremely powerful. I have been reading your blog for about four years now and thought it was about time I said "Thanks!"

Broadway & Me said...

Harry, thank you so much for your comments. I am indeed lucky to be able to see so much theater and to have people like you reading B&Me. I'm more than grateful that you took the time to write.