Look, or Look Away
Escape or confront? In a year when news of an angry, snarling nation seemed way too much with us, 24 hours a day, the New York theater served up both forget-your-troubles fantasies and magnifying mirrors to a world seriously out of joint.
It was possible for Broadway theatergoers to shock their systems raw with the sexual and racial dysfunction portrayed in Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play” and then soothe themselves in the vast Champagne bubble bath that is “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.” Then there was “American Utopia,” David Byrne’s sui generis performance piece, which suggested that while we might all be on a road to nowhere, we could at least enjoy the ride together.
The differences among those productions reflect a year of shows that defied categorization and expectation. The customary generic stickers slide right off a piece like Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Marys Seacole” — which turned the biographical drama inside out — or Dave Malloy’s “Octet,” an a cappella chamber opera about internet addiction. And with “Is This A Room,” the experimental theater company Half Straddle reinvented — and reignited — the hard-core documentary play.
The list that follows is therefore highly eclectic, with a majority of the productions coming from Off Broadway. (Full disclosure: Because of advertising-driven deadlines, it also includes only shows from the first 10½ months of the year.) As befits a season in which ranking such diversely surprising entries seems unjust and impossible, they are listed in alphabetical order.
Far more than the concert it first appears to be, this invigorating production — created by and starring the former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, with precision-tooled choreography by Annie-B Parson — is an unexpectedly hopeful paean to collective individualism, to the shared pleasures and anxieties of this outsize nation of oddballs. Like “Springsteen on Broadway,” it presents a rebel rock hero of yesteryear as an unexpectedly comforting, philosophical father figure for today.
The only revival on my list, this British import reconfigured the central triangle of Harold Pinter’s drama of infidelity into hauntingly fluid new patterns, in which none of the three central characters were ever absent from the others’ minds or the audience’s line of vision. Under Jamie Lloyd’s filigree direction, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Cox and Zawe Ashton made complicated thoughts and concealed emotions acutely visible.
The one-woman play about sex and the single bed hopper that begat the streaming series of the same title, while jump-starting the ever-ascending career of its creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. As performed by her with a physical focus and intensity that even the most probing cameras could never capture, this hourlong work of very live theater felt like the most bracingly intimate show in town.
How the other half thinks. Will Arbery’s ensemble play about a college reunion of sorts presented a perspective seldom seen on New York stages: That of pro-Trump, Catholic conservatives groping in the dark for answers, just like their left-leaning Manhattan equivalents. As directed by Danya Taymor, with a cast that burrowed into its characters’ uncomfortable skins like ticks, it made ideological debate seem as fraught and potentially wounding as a boxing match.
A pause-for-pause, cough-for-cough rendering of the F.B.I. transcripts of the first interrogation of the federal contractor Reality Winner, who is now serving a more than five-year sentence for whistle-blowing. The director Tina Satter turned this exercise in theater vérité, in which the blandest conversational clichés come loaded with unspecified menace, into a Kafka-like nightmare with a tension level worthy of Hitchcock. And as the beleaguered, unwittingly self-sabotaging Winner, Emily Davis gave one of the season’s most riveting performances.
Three first-rate actors — Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles — created a centuries-crossing multitude of characters in this panoramic tale of financial rise and decay, based on the history of the Lehman Brothers. Staged with infinite inventiveness by Sam Mendes, Stefano Massini’s epic drama of familial and economic accumulation and attrition became a juggernaut ride to ruin. (Seen at the Park Avenue Armory, it opens on Broadway next year.)
Jackie Sibblies Drury, whose iconoclastic “Fairview” won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama, continued to surprise with a Cubist vision of a heroic 19th-century war nurse from Jamaica. The extraordinary Quincy Tyler Bernstine portrayed both the original Mary Seacole and an assortment of latter-day avatars in Lileana Blain-Cruz’s kaleidoscopic, time-warping production.
Based on Baz Luhrmann’s film of the same title, this hedonist’s delight of an extravaganza, set in a fin-de-siècle show palace, goes over the top and stays there, in some giddy ether where it feels as if every pop song you ever heard is played in perpetuity. Directed with senses-saturating virtuosity by Alex Timbers, and starring a ravishing Karen Olivo as a dying Parisian vedette, this ne plus ultra of a much maligned form, the jukebox musical, found an unlikely elegance in excess.
In a year plump with idiosyncratic, small-scale musicals (which also included Michael R. Jackson’s bold erotic memoir “A Strange Loop”), none reached deeper or stretched further than Dave Malloy’s sung-through account of a support group for internet addicts. Directed by Annie Tippe, this a cappella show offered the season’s most sophisticated and heartening artistic paradox, as a dauntingly high-tech subject was embraced and exploded by that most low-tech of instruments, the human voice.
In a barrier-busting Broadway debut, the young playwright Jeremy O. Harris turned a sex therapy workshop into a scathing consideration of the great and unbridgeable American racial divide. Robert O’Hara directed what is surely the bravest cast on Broadway.
Much Ado About Something
More so than in any year since I started reviewing, the best work of 2019 (as of the end of November) seemed determined to focus, without hedging, on harsh realities. Among the casualties of that approach were musicals (I include only one) and shows produced on Broadway (likewise). Also missing are transfers already saluted on previous Top 10s: “Oklahoma!” “The Sound Inside,” “What the Constitution Means to Me.” That still leaves an impressively varied body of work — listed here in order of opening — that looked our world straight in the eye and didn’t blink.
When this classic play about a couple wandering the wastelands of apartheid had its debut in South Africa in 1969, its white author, Athol Fugard, played Boesman in blackface. Fifty years later, the harrowing revival directed by Yaël Farber for the Signature Theater Company would obviously have to feature black actors; all were superb. But in this post-apartheid era, the play seemed to have recast itself too. Boesman and Lena became archetypes of the broader human condition of poverty; not South Africa’s peculiar (and remediable) problem but the world’s eternal one.
The venturesome 19th-century Jamaican nurse played so forbiddingly by the fearless Quincy Tyler Bernstine is but one of the health workers in this tornado-like play by Jackie Sibblies Drury. The others are fictional latter-day variations. I say “fictional,” yet in Lileana Blain-Cruz’s furiously time-warping Lincoln Center Theater production the modern black women enduring high-value, low-pay jobs for white employers were just as venturesome as their spiritual forebear, exploring the limits of the human capacity to care for others.
Whether you call it a renaissance or an emergency, the agonizing subject of race in non-post-racial America continues to turn out superior plays by black playwrights. Many use the very structure of theater to dramatize the ways we look at each other. But it is also useful, powerful and, in the case of Aziza Barnes’s “BLKS,” a flat-out joy ride to see black life onstage as it is lived without (much) reference to whites. Under Robert O’Hara’s hold-onto-your seats staging for MCC Theater, this roommate comedy (with a hefty afterkick) was just the release we needed.
It was a dreadful year for new musicals. A few — like Michael R. Jackson’s “A Strange Loop” Off Broadway and “Hadestown” and “Tootsie” on Broadway — had at least some of the ingredients needed to lift the impossible art form into excellence: thematic ambition, exacting skill, dramatic coherence and superior staging. But only Dave Malloy’s chamber opera about electronic addiction, directed by Annie Tippe for, again, the Signature Theater, had them all, and gorgeous music to boot. It left me both horrified by the indiscriminate electronic appetite of the internet but also thrilled by the survival of painstaking, handmade craft.
It was the slap heard ’round Central Park. Escorting Shakespeare’s great comedy into a #MeToo, Black Lives Matter world, the director Kenny Leon moved the action in this Public Theater production to 2020 Atlanta, rendering the idea of romantic resistance as timely as it is classic. But given that timeliness, how could he drive the play’s “merry war” to its happy ending? That’s where the slap came in, as a woman named Hero reset her fiancé’s clock with a solid smack. For a few summer evenings at the Delacorte Theater, that was a huge civic release and a good start.
Another play set in a church basement? Adam Bock’s drama, directed by Trip Cullman for the Williamstown Theater Festival, set you up to expect nothing but naturalism from a handful of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts preparing coffee for their 12-step meetings. But as the play dug deeper, its realistic trappings dropped away, leaving the Off Broadway treasure Deirdre O’Connell to deliver a stupendous 25-minute monologue that ripped open the story with heartbreaking self-reproach. Phantoms, she showed, do not come unbidden into our lives; we invite them, over and over.
If you don’t like plays about children, wait until you see what children become. That’s one way of looking at Bess Wohl’s tragicomedy featuring four siblings, ages 5 through 12. Though we know something is very wrong — where are their parents? — we don’t know what it is until we meet them anew, 32 years later, haunted not only by what has happened in the interim but also by who they once were. In Michael Greif’s pinpoint production for Second Stage Theater, the very idea of personal growth came to seem dubious: In searching for the self, everyone is hurtfully selfish.
I’ve twice pulled out my big adjectives for Jeremy O. Harris’s play about three interracial couples on an “antebellum sexual performance therapy” retreat. I’ve also heeded criticism of it from those who find its vision of racial reconciliation perverse. But for me, Harris’s metaphor for the ghostly afterlife of America’s peculiar institution remains as theatrically rich — and as hilarious and scalding, in a staging, once again, by Robert O’Hara — as any to date. If it weren’t so perverse, it wouldn’t be true.
You’d think a play about the theological and political debates of four friends at a college reunion would not get much traction in New York, especially if those friends are enthusiastic Catholic conservatives who voted for Donald J. Trump. Yet Will Arbery’s deep dive into the struggling souls of red-state dreamers is for those very reasons one of the best plays of the year, forcing us into a form of sympathy with the devil. Danya Taymor’s production for Playwrights Horizons dared to explore their lives and ideas with affection, understanding and deep knowledge — if not, ultimately, approval.
Documentary theater is too often a dry exercise, but in this play — a staged transcription of an F.B.I. interrogation — reality is just a template for drama. Reality Winner is also the wonderful name of the woman convicted of leaking a classified intelligence report to the press, and in Emily Davis’s spectacular performance this apparently sunny Iran specialist and CrossFit aficionado achieved the gravity of Greek drama. In a year that often seemed overflooded with reality, Tina Satter’s impeccable production for the Vineyard Theater helped us see through the torrent of words into the eternal mysteries of human resistance.
One of the most heart-gripping shows of the year could hardly be simpler: It’s not even a full production, just a staged reading of trial transcripts.
In Waterwell’s “The Courtroom,” the accused is an immigrant in danger of deportation, her unassuming American life at risk of being torn apart over a mistake she insists was innocent. The sneaky thing about this riveting re-enactment, though, is that in watching it, we citizens are on trial, too. What kind of a nation are we? How cruel have we permitted ourselves to be?
That work, recently returned for monthly site-specific performances around New York, is part of 2019’s thrillingly vital bumper crop of political theater — shows that implicate the audience with bracing artistry.
“The Appointment,” a musical satire from the Philadelphia company Lightning Rod Special, juxtaposed an ensemble of puckishly adorable singing fetuses with the calm realism of scenes at a clinic, where patients seeking abortions are given legally mandated misinformation. A demystifying depiction of abortion and the restrictions around it, the show was as quietly thoughtful as it was boisterously, hilariously transgressive.
There was almost nothing quiet about Taylor Mac’s gory, gorgeous “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus,” which starred Nathan Lane in its too-brief Broadway run this spring. A rudely funny melding of classical and camp, set in a storage room piled with naked corpses, it was tragicomedy as cri de coeur — a response to the 2016 election, with an ending that’s maybe a glimmer of hope. Unless it’s despair.
All for One
Is there a form of theater simpler than the solo show? At its unfussiest, it’s just a body on a bare stage, with maybe a stool or a mic stand for company. But this year, three seemingly straightforward one-person plays proved intricate, unpredictable and often astonishing.
Derren Brown’s “Secret” is, on its debonair and flabbergasting surface, a splendid magic show. Its illusions and elegant frauds let Brown masquerade as a mind reader. (He comes by his dishonesty honestly: His introduction mentions “the power of the perfectly placed lie.”) But this elegantly structured show is also a meditation on subjectivity — how each of us sees the world, ourselves and each other.
Jacqueline Novak’s “Get on Your Knees” practices a racier kind of misdirection. A monologue about oral sex — fellatio in particular — it has plenty of jokes in shades of blue. “I’m very concerned with dignity,” Novak says, revealing that she has renamed a popular sexual position “the hound’s way.” Yet in its deep structure, the show is about her own dignity and the difficulty of being both a discerning mind and a desiring body.
More poignant and less ribald is David Cale’s “We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time,” the most personal work Cale has ever written. A confessional and a musical, it recounts how Cale’s father murdered his mother when Cale was a teenager. Astonishingly, Cale’s first-person reminiscence gives way to generous, wrenching renderings of both his parents.
Comic performances tend to be underrepresented come awards time, but we aficionados are not deterred — and 2019 gave us plenty to savor.
Megan Hill was superlative in three plays this year, but her most balls-out turn was as a preening frontman based on David Lee Roth in Amy Staats’s gender-bending, behind-the-music comedy, “Eddie and Dave.” A vision in snakeskin pants and poodle hair, Hill expertly deconstructed archetypes of strutting rock ‘n’ roll dudedom while also relishing them. I wish I could have seen her performance 10 more times.
Alyse Alan Louis was a revelation in the David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori musical “Soft Power.” Playing a fantasy version of Hillary Clinton that combined a half-frozen megawatt smile with the crazed zaniness of Carol Burnett on Red Bull, Louis could lead a high-intensity Busby Berkeley-inspired dance number but also form a classic screwball-comedy couple with Conrad Ricamora.
“The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” is not a great show, or even a very good one, but it does harbor a hilarious gem — or rather many, all courtesy of Ryan Knowles. Perched on long, angular legs, Knowles handles several parts in grand Looney Tunes style. What’s most striking is his vocal versatility: He can go down to chthonic depths when playing a centaur, for instance, yet for Hades, he models his grandiosely arch line readings after Paul Lynde’s.