December 30, 2017

Some of My Favorite Theater Things in 2017

As usual, I'm late to the party of 10 Bests Lists. All the others began going up the moment Christmas trees started sprouting on New York City street corners. But my tardiness matters even less this year because I've decided not to do a 10 Bests list. Instead, I'm celebrating the theatrical experiences that gave me the most pleasure in 2017. I didn't set a limit. I just wrote down all the things that left a smile on my face and they added up to 15. So I'm going with that and here, in no order at all, are 15 of my favorite theater things in 2017:

Seeing Jitney on Broadway: This was the last of the late great August Wilson's 10-play survey of African-American life in the 20th century to make it to Broadway, which is strange because its story, set during the '70s in the office of a gypsy cab company, may be Wilson's most accessible and it was great to see it getting the production it deserved with every single cast member rocking it hard.

Significant Other: Joshua Harmon's play about a guy watching all his best friends couple up and drift away while he's left still longing for a love of his own didn't work for a lot of people and its Broadway run closed after just 61 performances but it moved me, reminded me of my own days in the wilderness of loneliness and made me even more grateful than I already was that I found my beloved husband K.

A newfound appreciation for one-person shows: For years I've harbored a knee-jerk aversion to solo shows but the virtuoso performances of Marin Ireland in Roundabout Underground's production of On the Exhale and Billy Crudup in the Vineyard Theatre's Harry Clarke reminded me that it's not the format that counts but the artistry of an actor at the top of his or her game.

Danny DeVito in The Price: I'm not sure what I was expecting but Danny DeVito's Broadway debut as the wily antique dealer in Arthur Miller's spin on the Cain and Abel story was not only totally assured but scene-stealingly hysterical.

The stunning set for The Hairy Ape: Designer Stewart Laing created a cascade of deceptively bright yellow chairs inside the 55,000-square-foot drill hall at the Park Avenue Armory and then built a massive turntable around them so that the scenes for this timely revival of Eugene O'Neill's jeremiad about class division engulfed us viewers and left me gobsmacked.

The delicious silliness of The Play That Goes Wrong: Comedy is often a tough sell for me but the unabashed loopiness of this farce about an amateur theater group takes slapstick to dizzying heights and totally tickled my funny bone.

The pies at the Tooting Arts Club production of Sweeney Todd: This version of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler masterpiece originated in an actual London pie shop that has been recreated at the Barrow Street Theatre and features a pre-show dinner with pot pies made by the former executive pastry chef for the Obama White House that were almost as lip-smackingly delicious as your favorite Sondheim lyric.

The Profane: It was great to see a play about Muslims that didn't revolve around the subject of terrorism but I also loved the fact that Zayd Dohrn's dramedy about the daughter of a secular Muslim family who wants to marry the son of devout parents continued Playwrights Horizons' commitment to exploring America's new immigrant experience that began in 2016 with Julia Cho's Aubergine and Danai Gurira's Familiar.

Indecent: I was happy to see the great Paula Vogel finally get her Broadway debut with this form-shattering play about the power of art, delighted that Rebecca Taichman won the Tony for Best Director of a Play for her inventive staging of it and grateful that lead producer Daryl Roth not only kept the show running for four months even when it failed to hit at the box office but had it filmed so that theater lovers across the country could have the chance to see it on public television.

The Boy Who Danced on Air: The contemporary romance between an older Afghan man and the young boy he literally buys is an unlikely and uncomfortable subject for a musical but sensitive staging, artful choreography and fine acting made the Abingdon Theatre Company's production of Tim Rosser and Charlie Sohne's show one that lingered in my mind for weeks.

The Cost of Living: Two disabled characters played central roles in this Manhattan Theatre Club production but playwright Martyna Majok's refusal to define them solely in terms of their physical limitations and the unsentimental performances of her actors made for a powerful meditation on the need we all have to love and be loved.

Ghost Light: Combining ghost stories about the theater with a terrific backstage tour, this immersive production by Third Rail Projects used every part of the Claire Tow Theater atop Lincoln Center, from the dressing rooms and stairways to the lobby and its main stage, and provided me with a glimpse behind-the-scenes that makes me grin very time I even walk by the theater.

Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train: Both Sean Carvajal and Edi Gathegi were last minute replacements when actors with bigger names dropped out of this revival of Stephen Adley Guirgis' 2000 play about inmates in a prison grappling with the life-and-death issues of sin and redemption but their performances were sensational and I'm hoping to see these two talented actors in many more shows.

Jake Gyllenhaal's "Finishing the Hat" video: The Hollywood star was winning when I saw his portrayal of the 19th century artist Georges Seurat in the revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park with George at City Center's Encores! series, but I was even more knocked out by the video in which Gyllenhaal moves around backstage at Broadway's newly restored Hudson Theatre singing the show's signature number, which you can see by clicking here

Theater Podcasts: When I'm not seeing theater, I'm often listening to shows about it. Among my favorites this year have been "The Ensemblist," interviews with the actors who make up Broadway's ensembles; "Broadway Backstory," oral histories of recent hit musicals from In the Heights to Come From Away and "Maxamoo," reviews of off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway shows by a revolving panel of theater insiders and avid fans.  Plus, I can't resist a shout-out to "Today on Broadway," the daily news show hosted by my pals James Marino and Matt Tamanini and giving a small log-rolling plug for my own podcast, "Stagecraft," which has given me the chance to talk with some terrific playwrights and book writers for musicals and which you can find by clicking here.

Now, here's hoping that 2018 brings us all theater memories as good as these are for me.  In the meantime, Happy New Year!  

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