Sunday, December 31, 2017

Best Plays of 2017

It's that time again when I look back on the best new productions that opened in New York City over the past year.

This list is only for plays in the five boroughs, so great productions farther afield like The Secret Theatre and Romeo and Juliet as well as the productions at the Shaw Festival are ineligible. My own play Capital which opened in Detroit this year doesn't qualify either, even though it was named one of the Best of the Season for southeastern Michigan.

Also not included are shows that opened in 2016 but that I didn't get to see until this year, like Dear Evan Hansen and the Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Last year, A Doll's House, Butler, and Hadestown topped the list. But what were the best productions of 2017? Read on to find out!

10. The Liar - Truth is, this adaptation by David Ives of the classic comedy by Pierre Corneille was one of the best (and first) plays I saw in 2017.

9. Fucking A - Of the three Suzan-Lori Parks plays the Signature Theatre Company produced this year, this was by far the best. A riff off of The Scarlet Letter, the play had its first off-broadway run back in 2003, but its dystopian view of a society where abortion is legal but practitioners are literally branded seems all-too prescient.

8. Once on This Island - This beloved Ahrens-Flaherty musical is currently getting an amazing production, so get your tickets now. Lea Salonga is excellent as Erzulie, the goddess of love and beauty, but the rest of the cast is strong as well, and Dane Laffrey's set makes the most of Circle in the Square's intimate space. If you're concerned about seeing a play in the round, don't worry. Director Michael Arden makes sure there isn't a bad seat in the house.

7. The Government Inspector - The Red Bull Theater Company is dedicated to the aesthetic of Jacobean drama, but this year they put on Nikolai Gogol's nineteenth-century farce about a minor bureaucrat mistaken for the Inspector General from the capital. The split-level set was best viewed from further back in the audience, but even if you sat up front like I did, you got to see some amazing performances from the likes of Michael Urie, Mary Testa, Michael McGrath, and Talene Monahon.

6. A Midsummer Night's Dream - It wasn't too long ago (ten years) that The Public Theater previously did Shakespeare's supernatural romantic comedy in Central Park, but the 2017 production was indeed a dream. Annaleigh Ashford gave a stand-out performance as Helena, which is saying a lot, considering that the show's headliner was Phylicia Rashad as a queenly Titania. The most memorable aspect of this production was having the attendant fairies played by older actors wandering around the forest in what looked like their pajamas. It was creepy in all the right ways.

5. Ernest Shackleton Loves Me - Two-person musicals are hard to pull off, and it's difficult to imagine this one with anyone else in the lead but Val Vigoda, the show's lyricist who also acts, sings, and plays the drums, keyboard, banjo, and electric violin! The book by Joe DiPietro tells the story of a sleep-deprived single mom composing music for video games who tries Internet dating and ends up being matched with the early-twentieth-century explorer Ernest Shackleton. Who cares that they're 100 years apart and he's currently in Antarctica? This witty and wonderful piece was a ray of sunshine in a dark year.

4. Desperate Measures - Speaking of witty and wonderful new musicals, the surprise hit of 2017 was Peter Kellogg and David Friedman's Desperate Measures, which sadly closes today at the the York Theatre Company. Based very loosely on Shakespeare's problem comedy Measure for Measure, the play is reset in the Old American West, where an un-elected governor is able to abuse his power and try to force a virtuous young woman about to enter a convent to sleep with him. If she refuses, her brother will hang. That might not seem like the stuff of musical comedy, but joyous music and dialogue in perfect rhyming couplets keep the laughs coming even through bleak material.

3. Julius Caesar - No doubt the most controversial production in New York this year was also one of the best. Conservative snowflakes cried foul over a play showing a Trump-like figure being assassinated. (Never mind the numerous past productions of Julius Caesar with Clinton and Obama stand-ins as Caesar.) Few--if any of them--actually saw the production. Had they gotten off of their hypocritical high horses long enough to actually see the show, they would have witnessed a biting critique of the left, and a warning that political violence, as tempting as it may seem, only leads to more violence, and ultimately despotism. The brutal assassination scene left some audience members physically sick to their stomachs. Julius Caesar was truly visceral theatre.

2. HOME/SICK - This collaborative project by The Assembly has been around for a while. (The group first workshopped it in 2010.) However, the production that opened this year at JACK in Brooklyn benefited from a long incubation process and past exploratory runs across the country. The story it tells of the Weather Underground in no way romanticizes the movement. Instead, much like the Public's Julius CaesarHOME/SICK presents a cautionary tale of what happens when well meaning people turn to violence. During intermission, the audience watched a recreation of an event members of the Weather Underground had planned to bomb. It was chilling. Director Jess Chayes deftly led her cast to explore the complexities of taking on the injustices of the world when you yourself might through your own strident militancy become part of the problem.

1. Sweeney Todd - While Ernest Shackleton Loves Me and Desperate Measures were massively entertaining, and Julius Caesar and HOME/SICK were deeply disturbing, the Tooting Arts Club production of Sweeney Todd at the Barrow Street Theatre managed to be both. The show is still playing through the end of May, though sadly not with Norm Lewis, who opened this New York production as Sweeney. Fortunately, you can still catch Carolee Carmello as a hilarious and horrifying Mrs. Lovett. The Stephen Sondheim musical has a brilliant score, and you might think a stripped-down version in a reproduction of an actual London pie shop would lose something. Instead, this intimate production allows you to appreciate the music in a deeply personal way. Having the actors literally leap up onto tables right in front of you is shocking, but no more so than some of the acting choices, which remind you of the true trauma some of the characters suffer in this story.

So those are my picks for this year. Honorable mentions go to The Tempest at St. Ann's Warehouse, Everybody at the Signature, and the Metropolitan Opera's production of Fidelio. Hopefully 2018 will be an even better year for theatre in New York City!