January 30, 2010

The Fine Old Men in "Ages of the Moon"

New York seems to be in the midst of an undeclared Sam Shepard festival.  A revival of the playwright's 1980 classic True West opened at The Lion theater on Theater Row a couple of days ago. And a starry new production of his 1985 play A Lie of the Mind, with Keith Carradine, Josh Hamilton, Marin Ireland, and Laurie Metcalf under the direction of Ethan Hawke, is scheduled to open at The Acorn in the same theater complex on Feb. 18.  But there’s also a new Shepard work in town.  It’s a small one-act play called Ages of the Moon and it opened at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater on Wednesday night.

Over the years, Shepard and David Mamet have been in an arm-wrestling contest for the title of America’s most macho playwright. But Shepard, now 66 and four years older than Mamet, seems to be mellowing. Although Ages of the Moon has the usual share of drinking, cussing, sex talk and, of course Shepard’s trademark outbursts of violence, there’s a tender ruefulness to this play that affected me in a way that his other works haven’t. 

Ages of the Moon deals with aging, death, the ambiguity of memory and the hope that love can ease the inevitable approach of the final eclipse. Its protagonists are two old-time friends who reunite in an isolated hunting cabin where Ames, played by Stephen Rea, has summoned Byron, Seàn
McGinley, to console him after Ames’ wife has thrown him out following his fling with a 23 year-old.  

The two men sit on a porch and reminisce, fall out, make up, fall out again. They’re the literary and spiritual sons of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, only Shepard’s guys are backed up by a soundtrack of country music. The song “Have You Ever Been Lonely” is playing as the audience enters the theater.

Shepard wrote the two-hander, which premiered last year at Dublin’s Abbey Theater, for McGinley and Rea and these splendid actors make entertaining company, even if Rea mugs a little too much at times. Irish director Jimmy Fay, an old-hand at Shepard plays, nicely mines the humor and the pathos in the text. And the creative team is top shelf too. I got a particular kick out of the appropriately ridiculous two-toned shoes costume designer Joan Bergin found for Rea even if they made his feet look as big as a pair of Mini Coopers.

This isn’t a major Shepard work—the play runs barely 75 minutes—but that doesn’t mean it's an insignificant one.  Maybe it’s the fact that like Shepard, I am growing older and have become more tolerant.  Or that I saw Ages of the Moon with Ellie, my oldest friend with whom I’ve survived bouts of falling out and making up too numerous to count.  But I left the play, which is running through March 21, comforted by its message that even the scariest night can be tempered by the grace of friendship.

January 27, 2010

Is "Zero Hour" Worth the Time?

Zero Mostel created two iconic characters on Broadway (Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof) and he won three Tonys (for Forum, Fiddler and as Leopold Bloom in Ulysses in Nighttown) but most theater lovers today know him because he was the original Max Bialystock in the classic 1968 movie version of “The Producers.” Which made me wonder who would be the audience for Zero Hour, the one-man show about the life of the larger-than-life comic (he tipped the scales at way over 300 lbs.) who died in 1977. 

The answer to that became clear as soon as my old friend Phil, in from California, and I walked into the Theatre at St. Clements where the show is playing through this weekend. The people who came out to Zero Hour look to be the same folks who went out to see Mostel when he was alive. And what they see probably pleases them because Jim Brochu, who wrote the piece and performs it, is a dead ringer for Mostel and works hard to capture the cranky panache for which the comic was known. 

That, of course, is the first hurdle for a one-man show that attempts to recreate a well-known figure from the not-so-distant past. And Brochu pretty much aces it. The second test is to come up with a framing device that will allow the actor to explore the subject’s life. Zero Hour doesn’t rate as high on this one.  It relies on the tired concept of an interview with an unseen newspaper reporter but doesn’t even make it clear why the reporter wants to write about  Mostel. 

The answers to the unheard questions allow Brochu to cover the basics of Mostel’s Orthodox Jewish upbringing, his ambition to be a painter, his breaking into show business, his Broadway triumphs, his happy second marriage. But a big chunk of the show is devoted to McCarthyism and the blacklist that ruined the careers of so many artists who were accused of being communists. Mostel, once one of the highest-paid actors on Broadway, was forced for a few years to work in burlesque houses to make ends meet. But, of course, he eventually made it back to the big time.

Brochu clearly loves his subject.  In an interview with Playbill Radio that I enjoyed more than I did the play, he explains how he first met the comic when he was 14 and was inspired by him. (Click here to listen to the interview.) The two men stayed in touch until Mostel died of a heart attack at age 62.  And Brochu may be too much of a fan and a friend to have crafted more than a pean to his boyhood idol. 

Zero Hour might have been more interesting (at least to me) if Brochu had dug deeper and revealed some of the more complex aspects of Mostel, like the comic’s relationship with the agent Toby Cole. She helped him and other blacklisted actors get work during the height of the Red Scare.  But once he started working again, Mostel abandoned her for a more powerful agent. It may not be the same as informing on friends as Jerome Robbins (whom the play once again rakes over the coals for his behavior) did when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee but it’s not a nice thing to have done either.

The third test for a one-man show is to provide fresh insight into its subject. And here, at first, is where I thought Zero Hour really fell down. If you read as many histories and biographies about Broadway’s Golden Age as I do, the play’s revelations about McCarthyism—including  the beating up on Robbins—don’t offer much new.  But after I saw the show, I read a review by a fairly major critic who praised it for teaching him about how the hysteria over communism affected the theater community.  And so although I found many of the jokes lame and the narrative oversimplified, Zero Hour serves an important purpose. For as the philosopher George Santayana famously cautioned “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

But you needn’t think of seeing the show as homework.  My friend Phil, my original theatergoing buddy when he lived in New York, said he had a good time. The composer Stephen Schwartz was sitting right behind us and laughed heartily at all the quips.  The audience applause at the end of the performance we attended (despite its name, the show runs two hours) seemed warm and genuine. And the critical response was strong enough to earn the show a B+ on Critic-O-Meter (click here to read some of those reviews.) Zero Hour is moving to the DR2 Theatre for an open-ended run that begins on Feb. 24. So there will be plenty of opportunity for you to see it and judge for yourself. 

January 23, 2010

The Tragedy of the Learless "Lear"

Avant-garde theater can be an acquired taste and I confess it’s not one that I’ve really developed.  And yet I was eager to see Young Jean Lee’s Lear, a retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy by one of the darlings of downtown theater.  As you’ve probably heard by now, Lear never appears in Lee’s version.  She focuses the drama on the daughters of the monarch who prematurely surrenders his throne to test the love of his children and on the sons of his equally clueless counselor Gloucester.  It's a Lear-less Lear.

This Bizzaro World premise, evoking Tom Stoppard’s breakthrough Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which looked at Hamlet from the perspective of the prince’s schoolmates, sounded intriguing. But what really got me interested in Lear was the reception that an earlier Lee work, The Shipment, drew last year.  Lee, who’s 35, was born in Korea and immigrated to the U.S. when she was only two but The Shipment took an audaciously satiric look at society's deep-rooted stereotypes about African-Americans. 

The critics went wild for it and the production’s short run at The Kitchen was extended, although not long enough for me to be able to get a ticket. So I put in my bid early when I heard that Soho Rep was going to present Lear because I wanted to see for myself what the fuss was all about.

Lee was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California at Berkeley and writing a dissertation on King Lear when she suddenly decided to become a playwright. She says the first show she saw once she got to New York was a Richard Maxwell play at the Performing Garage, which caused her to fall in love with experimental theater and jump into the downtown scene, apprenticing, writing, directing.  But she didn’t completely sever her connection to King Lear

When her father became ill, Lee started writing her own Lear. The two older men were in her original version but after she watched a workshop, she cut them out and centered her play around the younger generation (in this production, Lear’s three daughters are black and Gloucester’s two sons white) and the feelings of anger, guilt and responsibility that grown children feel toward aging parents. Lee has said that she wanted “to make the audience cry” in the same way that she did as she wrote (click here to watch a YouTube conversation about the play between Lee and Soho Rep’s Sarah Benson). 

Alas, most of the play lacks that kind of emotional punch.  The exceptions are two soliloquies.  The first is taken directly from King Lear and spoken to great effect by Okwui Okpokwasili as Goneril. The second comes near the end when Pete Simpson, the actor playing Edmund, steps out of character and talks movingly about a dying parent. But the rest of the play is so self-consciously affectless that it keeps the audience at a remove.

Part of the problem is that Lee, who also directed the production, doesn’t trust her audience. An insert in the program offers a partial synopsis of King Lear that might serve as the text for a children’s book. Near the show’s end, the characters break the fourth wall to explain themselves and the play. At one point Paul Lazar, who plays Edgar, asks the audience "What are you doing here? Is this really what you want to be doing with your life? Get up and run. Run away and do something better." In fact, Lee herself seems to be running away from her play, as though she’s not sure what to do with it.

The audience—which included Mikhail Baryshnikov— the night my friend Jesse and I attended the show arrived ready to cheer it on.  People started laughing before the characters even finished saying Lee’s lines, many of which drew their humor from the glaring discrepancy between the elegant Elizabethan costumes and set (grandly designed by Roxana Ramseur and David Evans Morris) and the determinedly anachronistic modern-day speech.  But the applause seemed uncertain at the play’s abrupt end, which came barely 90 minutes after its start.  Jesse, who loves unconventional stuff, looked unsatisfied too.

The critics have been divided.  The New York Times, New York Post and New York Daily News gave Lear thumbs down. But it got high fives from Variety, the Village Voice and especially Time Out New York (click here to read all of them on Critic-O-Meter).  And it's added to the ongoing debate over the sanctity of Shakespeare (click here for a bit of that). I don’t think the Bard, who regularly pilfered plots from other playwrights and scrambled them around, would be bothered by Lee’s reimagining of King Lear.  And we shouldn't forget that old Will was in the artistic vanguard of his day.  But what he kept in mind, and Lee seems to have forgotten this time out, is that you need to be razor sharp if you want to dance on the cutting edge.

January 20, 2010

Why "Fela!" is Such a Winnah!

Every Broadway show is a crapshoot.  No one knows for sure what audiences will like and what they won’t.  Still, the odds seemed higher than usual against the new musical Fela!  Its score—a throbbing mix of jazz, funk and traditional African rhythms known as Afrobeat—is as far away from the show tune as Lagos is from Long Island. Its book—the life story of the controversial Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti—isn’t the usual Broadway fare either.  And there are no celebrity names in the cast. But Fela! has turned out to be a winner. 

You can tell that by the fact that it’s selling out about 95% of its seats while shows that seemed surer bets have been closing left and right. Or by the way the audience members literally dance in the aisles at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, where the show seems likely to enjoy a good run.  Or by the smile that spread across the face of my niece Jennifer, who is only 30 but has been going to Broadway shows for over 25 years and is as jaded as they come.  As the show ended, Jennifer turned to me with a grin.  “Yeah, yeah,” she said, nodding her head and pumping her fists in time to the music as she echoed Fela’s trademark exclamation of approval.

For despite its potentially downer subject matter (Fela is jailed, his wives—he was married to as many as 12 of them at a time in real life—tortured, his mom, their country’s leading feminist, is killed) Fela! may be the feel-good show of the season. The music, performed by the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat band Antibalas, is infectiously joyous, the dancing is amazing (a BIG shoutout to the tireless troupe of hip-shaking dancers), many of the jokes provoke belly laughs and the show plays into the fascination with Africa that is currently influencing fashion and art (click here to read a New York Times story about the trend). 

I first saw Fela! when it played at the 37 Arts Theatre in the fall of 2008 and was wowed by it even though, at three hours, the show was waaaaay too long and its story more than a bit confusing.  The credit for its now streamlined success has to go to Bill T. Jones, the Tony-winning choreographer for Spring Awakening, who not only conceived, directed and choreographed Fela! but hired Lillias White to sing the hell out of the songs given to Fela’s mother and persuaded the rapper-mogul Jay-Z and the movie star-moguls Will and Jada Pinkett Smith to invest in the show and lend their names to it as over-the-title producers.  Jones has also promoted the show relentlessly (click just about anywhere on the internet, TV or radio to read or hear him give his spiel or click here ). 

What I most loved when I saw the show at 37 Arts was the star-making performance by Sahr Ngaujah as Fela.  As I said in my review back then (click here to read what I said) I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role.  Fela sings, dances and narrates the entire show (no one else even speaks).
It’s an exhausting job. So Ngaujah now shares the role with Kevin Mambo.  My heart sank when I saw the insert announcing that Mambo was playing the part the night Jennifer and I attended the show. But while it’s true that Mambo may not have Ngaujah’s charisma, he’s no slouch either. 

The man sitting across the aisle from me rushed in just before the show began.  He carried an expensive-looking brief case and wore an expensive-looking suit. I took him to be a lawyer or a lower-level, not-getting-quite-a-billion-dollars-bonus investment banker. He boogied at every opportunity (there are moments when the audience is invited to stand up and dance along) and even snuck in a few extra wiggles while in his seat. I wager that if you could find him and ask him, he’d say that Fela! offers as good a bet as they come, a fine return on your ticket-price investment.

January 16, 2010

A Lot of "Race" Talk But Little New to Say

Sometimes when you see a play can matter as much as what you see.  My husband K and I saw Race, David Mamet’s new drama about the titled subject, three days after Senator Harry Reid apologized to President Obama for his comments that Obama made a good presidential candidate because he was “light-skinned” and spoke with “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”  And so I confess I was just as interested in who came to the show and how they responded to it in light of the Reid controversy as I was about what Mamet had to say.

Which turned out to be a good thing.  Because Mamet doesn’t have very much new to say.  His plot revolves around a law firm—whose senior partners are a white lawyer and a black one—that has been approached to represent a rich white man who is accused of raping a black woman. In typical Mamet fashion, there is also a quixotic young woman—in this case, a black law associate—who upsets things. 

The lawyers’ debates over whether they should take the case and how to defend the client provide the opportunity for Mamet to sound off on his feelings about race and about how we do and don’t talk honestly about it.  This is valid stuff.  As the Reid case shows, our sensitivities about the subject and the awkward inadequacies of the words we use to explain them can make it hard to have a meaningful conversation about race. But from the O.J. Simpson verdict to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright
kerfuffle that bone has already been well gnawed.

Of course well-trod ground has produced good plays before.  The problem here is that Mamet seems less interested in cultivating drama than in spouting polemics
(click here to read an essay he wrote on race relations).  His characters aren’t really people but three-dimensional placards. Some of the things they say are amusing.  Others intentionally provocative. And, this being Mamet, a lot of it is profane—including, of course, use of the N-word. But because Mamet is so careless about the plot (an over-reliance on coincidence is just one of his crimes) it’s hard to care about his mouthpieces. Which undercuts what they're trying to say.

Mamet directed the play himself, which doesn’t help.  A good director can bring a fresh eye to a new work and the questions he or she asks can help a playwright sharpen things. Mamet—and the rest of us
could have benefited from having someone else besides himself to talk to.  I also wish there had been someone else to work with the cast.  James Spader as the seemingly-cynical white lawyer gets off best, but he’s had practice in a similar role during his years on TV’s “Boston Legal” series.  He also has enough talent and stage presence to have brought something more to the part if he’d been given better guidance. 

Despite a degree from the Yale School of Drama, which is prominently noted in his Playbill bio, David Alan Grier has spent much of his career doing comedy and so he works too hard to show how no-nonsense the firm’s black partner is (click here to read a piece about his approach to the role). Kerry Washington, the pretty girl in dozens of movies, looks good here too but is too callow in her Broadway debut to bring home the goods in the climax of the play. Richard Thomas, who I’ve seen do really good work in the past, fares even worse. His rich guy is awkward and totally unconvincing.

As is usual on Broadway, the audience the night K and I saw the play was largely white but there were a good number of blacks—including the legendary R&B songwriters Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson—sprinkled here and there. The white folks laughed with relief at the jokes;  the black folks seemed to have tighter smiles on their faces. But at the end everyone stood for a standing ovation. And I saw people from both races engaged in deep discussion as they left the theater. But not with one another. 

January 13, 2010

"The Understudy" is Too Underwhelming

There were far more young people mixed in among the usual grayheads than I had expected to see at the The Understudy, which ends its run at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre this weekend.  And the reason for the relative youth surge became clear at the end of the show when the twentysomething woman sitting next to me turned to her date.  “Hurry,” she told him as he struggled into his coat.  “I want to get a photo with Mark-Paul.”

Mark-Paul is Mark-Paul Gosselaar, the hunky TV star who, although he is now 35, will forever be known to the generation that came of age in the ‘90s as the tween heartthrob Zack on the show “Saved By the Bell” and who is making his stage debut in The Understudy (click here to read an interview he gave Broadway.com about the experience).  Ironically, the play, written by the prolific playwright Theresa Rebeck, centers around a stage manager (Julie White) who is rehearsing an actor (Justin Kirk) who has been hired to cover the part of  a Hollywood star (Gosselaar) making his stage debut.

The migration of Hollywood actors—many of them stage neophytes—to Broadway and off-Broadway has been one of the big theater stories in recent years (click here to see a recent exchange on The Clyde Fitch Report website) and so once again, Rebeck has touched on a hot topic. The problem is that’s all Rebeck has done when what you—or at least I—want her to do is grab hold of the subject and shake loose some fresh insight.  Instead what we get is an extended “Saturday Night Live” skit.

This isn’t a total dis.  “SNL” can be amusing and even astute.  But its skits don’t go on for 90 minutes.  And they don’t pretend to be more than they are. The Understudy's cast works hard (White is typically game, Kirk’s smirk works for his character and Gosselaar more than holds his own) but the plot is contrived and too many of the jokes fall flat.  To make matters worse, gags are repeated over and over again.  I suppose the idea is that they’ll seem funnier with each repetition but, alas, that’s not what happens. 

Scott Ellis is one of my favorite—and one of the New York theater's best—directors but he isn’t able to do much here either. The only person who looks to be having fun is set designer Alexander Dodge who got to create intentionally pretentious sets for the play-within-a-play: a production of a fictional long-lost work by Franz Kafka.

As I seem to say each time I write about her, I admire Rebeck.  She made her name in TV, writing for shows like “L.A. Law”, “NYPD Blue” and “Law & Order.”  And she could be making vanloads of money by continuing to write for television but she clearly loves theater and has thrown herself into writing plays—and into getting them produced. This is the third Rebeck show I’ve seen in the past 15 months. And if this were baseball, she’d be out. But this is theater so I’m just going to root for her to have more success next time she’s up at bat.

In the meantime, none of this mattered a lick to the Gosselaar fans who lined up outside a barricade in the cold to wait for him to come out and sign autographs.  I even saw him posing for a few photos. 

January 9, 2010

Taking Time Off for My Main Love

As much as I love theater, I love my husband K even more.  Today is our anniversary and I’m taking time off so that we can celebrate. Consequently, there will be no post today, except to say I wish each of you as much happiness as the two of us have found in one another.

January 6, 2010

Closing the Door too Soon on "In the Next Room"

April, T.S. Eliot famously said, is the cruellest month.  But if Eliot were alive today and working in theater, I bet he would dread January even more.  This is the time of year when producers on and off Broadway take a hard-eyed look at their shows to figure out which ones can survive the barren-box-office wasteland of winter. Then, they start throwing the deadweight off the sled.

Shrek flew its freak flag for the last time on Sunday.  Burn the Floor, Ragtime, The 39 Steps, and even the long-running Altar Boyz will take their final bows this coming Sunday. Finian’s Rainbow and Wishful Drinking will follow on the 17th and just yesterday came word that My First Time will close on the 22nd after over two years at New World Stages.  But the show I’m saddest to see go is In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, Sarah Ruhl’s surprisingly affective comedy that also ends its run on Sunday.

In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play has the kind of wink-wink title and nudge-nudge storyline that suggests it will be no more than a one-joke evening. The plot revolves around a doctor at the turn of the 20th century who treats his emotionally distressed patients, most of them female, with a new electric gadget that causes them to have tension-relieving paroxysms or, as we know them, orgasms.

Ruhl says she based the play on actual vibrator treatments from that period when the country, in the process of changing from cozy but dim candle and oil lighting to the mechanical brilliance of electricity, was dazzled by the powers of science and the intellect.  And initially much fun is made—over and over again—of the way the characters embrace the new technology of the doctor’s clinical device while remaining clueless about the sexuality involved.

But as the evening progresses, the play reveals itself to be far more than a one-note punchline.  Peeking through the surface smirkiness are vital questions about sensuality and people's need to connect to one another. One subplot about a black wet nurse who has been hired because the doctor’s wife is unable to produce enough milk to feed their newborn seemed to belong to a different play until I realize that Ruhl intended to probe the many ways in which we deny ourselves sensual pleasures at the same time that we crave them.

The seven-person cast is superb.  Michael Cerveris uses his natural restraint to wonderful effect as the pleasure-giving doctor who has repressed his own desires (click here to see a Broadway Buzz photo essay on Cerveris).  And Maria Dizzia manages both to outdo Meg Ryan in the famously giddy I’ll-Have-What-She’s-Having scene in the movie “When Harry Met Sally” and to convey the serious fulfillment of a woman breaking through society’s inhibitions. 

But best for me was Laura Benanti as the doctor’s unsatisfied wife who yearns for something beyond the constrictions of her middle-class existence.  Benanti, who won a Tony for playing the title role in the recent revival of Gypsy, is always lovely to look at and now, after some earlier missteps, she’s blooming as a dramatic actress as well.

The design team is top-shelf too.  Annie Smart has created a bifurcated set that quietly underscores the division between the doctor’s professional and personal lives.  David Zinn’s gorgeous costumes provide their own narratives as the women strip away layer after layer of corsets and crinolines before they are free enough to take the treatment. And Les Waters pulls off the neat trick of allowing Ruhl’s easy laughs without sacrificing her play’s more complex emotions.

So why isn’t In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play running longer?  Maybe it’s the title.  Or maybe it’s the absence of Hollywood names on the marquee.  Whatever it is, the landscape for people who enjoy smart theater is going to be even more desolate without it.

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.