As I look back at my theatre experiences this year, it was full of interesting “first-time” plays and musicals as well as a number of revivals that stood out. There were also more than a few premieres and revivals that were remarkably disappointing. I have decided to classify these plays as memorable and disappointing. So, first, the memorable standouts.
One play took me completely by surprise and qualifies as a truly extraordinary playwriting accomplishment. I entered the theatre to see Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Pt. 2” with great trepidation. A number of playwrights have tried to tackle “the post-door slam” of Ibsen’s masterpiece; the most memorable failure being Comden and Green’s musical “A Doll’s Life,” that I saw in a Los Angeles try-out before it closed after five performances on Broadway in 1982. Hnath’s Nora returns home after fifteen years during which she became a controversial author of books critiquing society’s treatment of women (in 19th century Norway). The play is very funny and as dramatic and engaging as the original. The Broadway production had a great cast lead by Laurie Metcalf who won the Tony Award for best female actor. It’s one of the best plays I have seen in years, full of stimulating observations about marriage, family, and the roles of men and women.
“Indecent” by Paula Vogel, based on a concept by the play’s director, Rebecca Taichman, was a fascinating look at a Yiddish theatre company’s presentation of “God of Vengeance” by Sholem Asch as it moved from unprecedented success in Europe eventually to Broadway in 1923, where it was closed for “indecency.” I found Vogel’s script a bit lumpy – over emphasizing a lesbian relationship in “God of Vengeance” when its portrayal of a Jewish house of prostitution and the duplicity of the orthodox father/pimp were just as “indecent.” But Taichman’s direction was pitch perfect and made Vogel’s script into a fascinating portrait of the theatre company’s trials and tribulations. I was as surprised and gratified as she appeared to be accepting the Tony Award for best direction – well deserved. Another distinguished Broadway play was “Oslo,” which I saw last year in Lincoln Center’s Off-Broadway Newhouse Theater before it moved upstairs to the Beaumont. Playwright J. T. Rogers and director Bartlett Sher combined to make a three-hour, very detailed retelling of the back-story of the Oslo Agreement on Israel and Palestine into an almost sit-on-the-edge of your seat drama. That’s no small achievement, especially since 24 years later the audience knows this play might have been titled “Much Ado about Nothing.”
Another play that I saw last year at The Public Theatre made it to Broadway. Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” won the Pulitzer Prize and no play more fully meets the definition of that prize: “For a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life.” I had the good fortune to see “Sweat” at The Public a few days before the presidential election. Nottage’s portrait of factory workers losing their jobs in Reading, PA, was an insightful examination of the pressures and frustrations that drove so many middle Americans to believe the lies of Trump. The play is not political; it’s about struggling people – their fears, desires, and their racial attitudes. But it was a depiction of Trump’s America playing to an “elite” audience at The Public, many of whom had a hand in creating this desparate version of America. That’s what makes live theatre so powerful.
One straight play revival stands out: Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of August Wilson’s “Jitney.” This was the first play written by Wilson in his ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle, although in terms of 20th Century decades, it represents the 1970s. Like so many of his plays, it is a character study, carefully observed and fully recreated. The MTC production employed many of the most experienced and talented African American actors on the US stage. Very little actually happens, but so much is communicated.
The new traditional Broadway musicals that I saw were pretty lackluster. But three less traditional shows were definitely worth seeing. At the top of the list is “Dear Evan Hanson,” a show I saw in its Off-Broadway incarnation. The story of a pathologically shy teenager who becomes the center of a social media extravaganza is deserving of the buzz and awards it achieved, including Tonys for best musical and best performance by Ben Platt, a truly remarkable Broadway debut. The book by Steven Levenson and the music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul work together seamlessly to portray the world of youth in the age of the internet. The other remarkable achievement in musical theatre is “The Band’s Visit,” an adaptation of an Israeli film that tells the story of the Egyptian Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arriving in the wrong city in the Negev Desert of Israel to give a concert at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center. They are taken in by members of the small town and what follows is a beautiful and moving portrayal of ennui. With a gorgeous score by David Yazbek and an equally engaging book by Itmar Moses, the two leads, Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk, bring new dimensions to angst.
“Come from Away” is a much happier portrayal of people ending up in the wrong place even though 9/11 hangs over every moment of joy. When air traffic is frozen and planes are diverted to the nearest airport, the small Newfoundland town of Gander is forced to accept 38 planeloads of disoriented passengers. The writing team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein carefully researched the events surrounding Gander’s open-armed acceptance of their visitors and created credible and delightful composites of stranded passengers and town-folk. For me, much of the charm of this show grew out of the music that was (with one exception) sung as ensemble numbers. While there are clear connections to tragedy down below – a mother worried about her son, a NYC fireman – the consistently upbeat atmosphere of the show creates a sort of anxiety in viewer who vividly remembers those very dark days.
And then there is best musical revival: “Hello Dolly.” Yes, the main attraction was Bette Midler as the resourceful Dolly Levi and she certainly met and surpassed the challenge of the Broadway legends who have tackled this role. But what really made this show so wonderful was the production and its magnificent cast. Director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle resisted any temptation to reconceptualize the style of the show; instead they make anew the elements that have made this show a musical classic with flair and panache. Truly, Dolly was back where she belonged!
“Big River,” presented as part of the Encores series at New York City Center, confirmed my love of this melodic musical. Encores revives shows for six performances, billed as staged readings; but scripts were nowhere to be seen and “Big River” does not need great sets to portray Mark Twain’s nuanced story of Huckleberry Finn and his friend (and adopted mother’s slave) Jim. William Hampton’s book avoids some of the thorny elements of Twain’s original and Roger Miller’s score captures the atmosphere and the challenges of life on the Mississippi River.
As usual, the really “meaty” offerings were Off-Broadway. Amy Herzog’s “Mary Jane” is another play that I entered with some trepidation. The story of a single-mother caring for a severely ill young child sounded like another “woe is me” drama (not that that type of story is not a good case for “woe is me”). But Herzog portrays a mother with an immutable positive attitude, a woman who cannot let herself get in the way of what she cares for. We never see the child; instead we see the details of this mother’s everyday life played with subtlety and strength by Carrie Coon. The audience is drawn into this mother’s world and cannot escape empathy and deep feelings.
Annie Baker’s “Antipodes” has the opposite effect using a completely different style – it portrays a group of writers trying to develop a unique story for some type of unnamed entertainment outlet. Nine men and women gathered around, and eventually locked in, a stark office conference room. It’s hard to describe exactly what the play means – it explores the role of storytelling in cultures past and present. But it also portrays story creators unable to master their task and escape the personal stories. Some found this play unfocused and boring; but I was taken on a fascinating ride through the impact that myth and legend has on our existence. Baker is probably the hottest young playwright on the New York scene these days. I was mystified by the acclaim she received (including a Pulitzer) for “The Flick.” But her two most recent plays, including last year’s totally different but equally as fascinating “John,” have made me anxious to see what comes next.
Zayd Dohrn’s “The Profane” at Playwrights Horizons introduced a fascinating twist into the portrayal of Muslim Americans, a topic that has become the subject of many new plays recently – and rightly so. On the surface, the play is about the daughter in a fully assimilated Muslim family who is in love with a young man from a very traditional orthodox Muslim family. In fact, it could be argued that Dohrn’s play is less about levels of belief and more about the conflict between liberal progressivism and any form of orthodoxy. The play has some structural weaknesses, but like so many of the Playwrights Horizon’s productions, it provided a lot of food for thought.
The Canadian Soulpepper “National Civic Theatre” shares many characteristics with Playwrights Horizons and this summer they brought several of their most successful productions to the Signature Theatre. “Kim’s Convenience” is a fairly traditional comedy about an immigrant Korean family that runs a convenience store in Toronto’s Regent Park. In fact, the original production of this play lead to the creation of a very popular Canadian television sit-com. The timing of this American premiere could not have been more timely. The underlying themes of this very funny sit-com are race relations and the acceptance of immigrants by our neighbors to the north, playing in New York as our nation was confronting the Trump administration’s suppression of immigrants and uttering racial slurs. I saw the opening performance after which the company’s artistic director greeted the audience. “Any Canadians in the audience?” he asked. Following a round of applause he said, “Any people hoping to be Canadians in the audience?” Much more applause.
The Public Theater put Louis Elfaro’s “Oedipus El Rey” in its smallest theatre, but this was anything but a small undertaking. Elfaro moves Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” to gang-infested South Central Los Angeles. The amazing and fully credible achievement of this work is how faithful Alfaro is to the original – an up-and-coming gang lord who ends up killing his father and marrying his mother with every twist and turn reconceived in the traditions of southwestern American Latino populations.
Several Off-Broadway revivals are worth recognizing. “Sweeney Todd” is given an intimate environment in an English production that originated in an actual pie shop. The small Barrow Street Playhouse was converted into a pie shop and the audience sits at tables as they are threatened (and cajoled) by the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Having seen the original production in its beautifully inflated environment meant to give the sense of a dark opera, it was truly enlightening to re-experience this masterpiece up close and uncomfortable.
Two revivals benefited from the multitalented Michael Urie. The first was a hilarious adaptation of Gogol’s “The Government Inspector” presented by The Red Bull Theater, a company that specializes in producing classics. While some of Gogol’s political edginess was missing, who cares when you are laughing your head off. The second Urie spectacle was “Torch Song,” a slightly edited version of Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy” (all three acts compressed in two acts and 2 ½ hours). The most rewarding aspect of that production at the 2nd Stage Company was how well the play stands up after 35 years. So much has changed since I saw the original Broadway production, yet Fierstein’s insights are as current and valid as ever. Urie’s performances was very good, as expected. However, when he was in his drag scenes, you could not separate this Arnold from Urie’s wonderful take on Barbra Streisand in Buyer and Cellar. But then, what drag queen hasn’t dabbled in the funny girl.
Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” was given a shattering revival at Signature Theatre. On the surface, this play appears to be about the treatment of prisoners at New York’s legendary Rikers Island. But the main action in the play is the conflict between a serial killer who has adopted salvation in religion and a young, relatively innocent man who committed a murder trying to rescue his best friend from the cult-like Unification Church. While Guirgis seems to have no real message about either religion or prisons, he draws the audience into each character’s point of view and the Signature Production, plagued by last-minute cast changes, was totally absorbing.
The Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA) in Brooklyn specializes in revivals of classics, most often Shakespeare. But last February they turned their attention to an American classic – one that is very difficult to pull off. Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” is about war and love and catastrophe and evolution and…! The cast includes dinosaurs, Plato, Mosses and a mammoth, as well as an all-American family struggling to maintain some type of order in the world of chaos. Frankly, when I read this play in graduate school, I dismissed it as an unproducable vestige of WWII insecurities – little did I know that it is one of the most produced plays in the American canon. TFANA’s production showed me everything I had missed – the charm, the insight, the fun and the horrors — and when in our current American history is it better to remind us that we will survive by the skin of our teeth?
Now for a brief look at the disappointments. There were lots of plays that just were not good, but some had promise and failed so miserably that I left the theatre more disappointed than angry at the production’s failure. Sam Gold’s production of “The Glass Menagerie” with Sally Field and Joe Mantella in the lead roles stripped the play of costumes, scenery, and even Amanda’s southern drawl. The theatre lights stayed on for the first half hour for some inexplicable reason. Gold’s actors refused to give any rhythm or musical tone to Tennessee Williams’ poetic language. While there were moments when Joe Mantella helped us to understand that the play is really about Williams and not his mother or sister, there was little else to recommend this interpretation.
Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter” was given a star-driven production lead by Kevin Kline, full of his usual comic stage antics. The critics loved it, but I felt that director Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s decision to violate the classic structure of a sitting comedy by turning the three acts into two was a big mistake. For me, this destroyed the rhythm of the play – Coward knew that the first act sets up the very funny and chaotic second act while the third provides resolution. In an effort to cater to our contemporary audiences’ fear of a full-length play and expectation that a good play lasts only 90 minutes, the craft and joy of Mr. Coward was lost.
Another production that got raves from the critics and a “so what” from me was another Sam Gold production, “Hamlet” at The Public Theater in another stripped-down production starring Oscar Isaac. This was a flat interpretation with no flare even in its most dramatic moments. Sitting in the Anspacher Theatre, my mind kept wandering to my memories of Joe Papp’s totally unorthodox production that starred Cleavon Little fifty years ago. At the plays end, using all sorts of lethal weapons, Hamlet survived. Little looked at the audience and said, “Well you know this is not how this is supposed to end” and then he started up a set of stairs where he tripped and his gun went off. Revisionist, yes. But then this is a play about indecisiveness in the face of a chaotic world.
Two new Broadway musicals held out a lot of promise but failed to deliver. “War Paint” had the dynamic duo of Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole playing the fascinating founders of the cosmetic industry, as Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. I thought with a book by Doug Wright, who turned another unusual duo into mesmerizing figures in “Grey Gardens,” this musical would be a war of personalities. But it played more like a documentary of the founding of the women’s makeup industry with a forgettable score and production numbers that did little to advance the story or reflect on the characters. “Groundhog Day” was equally disappointing. After London reviews that went so far as to describe it as an “instant classic,” I looked forward to a movie adaptation that was a natural for conversion to a musical. Alas, the repetitiveness that made the film charming (and at times meaningful) was just plain tiring on stage. Another meritless score did not help.
A tribute to the brilliance of Hal Prince has been in the workings for years. It finally got produced this fall by the usually inventive Manhattan Theater Club. It may have been impossible to meet the audience’s expectations for this show. After all, the best work of a director or producer in a musical is usually invisible and trying to select tid-bits that might demonstrate the director’s impact is nearly impossible. Instead, “Prince of Broadway” was a collection of mainly famous songs from Prince’s shows. Occasionally, there were lesser known songs that gave some unexpected pleasure and the performers were outstanding. There was a rather lame narration culled from some of Prince’s public statements. It was pleasant, but unremarkable in light of the towering figure it meant to celebrate.
Finally, we looked forward to a tribute that LaMama is running to one of my favorite “off-off” playwrights, Charles Ludlam, who sadly perished in the early days of AIDS. I was a devoted advocate for the extraordinary way Ludlam could take a classic format and turn it inside out with comedy and insight. His adaptations of Hamlet and Camille were classic and his ever popular “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is still produced regularly. So, when LaMama announced that it would produce of one his earliest pieces that I had never seen, “Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide” under the direction (and starring) Ludlam’s theatrical and personal partner, Everett Quinten, I rushed to purchase tickets. Theoretically, the play is inspired by Marlow’s “Tamburlaine,” but 45 minutes into the play I was thoroughly confused and perceived little humor and none of the wonderful poking fun at form and content that was at the core of Ludlam’s genius. It was awkward to walk out in LaMama’s main theatre, but I succeeded.
The good certainly outweighed the not-so-good this year. And even when you see a turkey, there’s a sense that live theatre gives you something no other form provides – a chance to live with live artists making something to entertain, challenge and/or enlighten you and you are an essential part of what they are producing. Without a live audience, there is no theatre. It’s that communion between me and the performers that makes every outing worthwhile.