Monday, December 31, 2018

Top Plays of 2018

Each December, I compile a list of the top plays I saw that opened that year in New York City. Last year, Sweeney Todd, HOME/SICK, and Julius Caesar topped the list.

This year both Roundabout Theatre Company and the Public Theater have multiple shows on my list. Playwrights William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw get multiple nods as well.

So without further ado, here’s my list:

10. Romeo and Juliet – Each year, New York Classical Theatre Company puts on free productions in the city’s parks. This summer’s production of Shakespeare’s classic tale about star-crossed lovers used innovative doubling to tell a familiar story in a memorable new way.

9. Heartbreak House – Gingold Theatrical Group makes the list this year with another innovative adaptation of a classic. This re-imagining of Shaw’s chestnut about Europe during World War I was reset as a play-within-a-play during the London Blitz, which worked quite well.

8. Love’s Labour’s Lost – This Shake & Bake production combines the Bard’s romantic comedy with a five-course tasting menu. The actors do a wonderful job creating magical moments in a pared-down production in the Meatpacking District. The food is tasty, but it’s the acting that is truly delicious.

7. Stories by Heart – So, what is this thing? That’s what John Lithgow quipped at the beginning of his one-man show about the stories his father read to him as a child. Ordinarily, I don’t go in for one person plays, but Lithgow’s mixture of personal memoir with classic storytelling won me over in the end.

6. Othello – Not everyone loved the Public Theatre’s production of Othello this summer at the Delacorte, but I found Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s direction to be superb. The relationship between Iago and Rodrigo was particularly fascinating to me, and Chukwudi Iwuji did a great job playing the title role.

5. Mother of the Maid – The Public Theatre scored another hit with Jane Anderson’s new play Mother of the Maid about the family of Joan of Arc. The piece was marketed as a vehicle for Glenn Close, who played Isabelle Arc, but Anderson’s play tells the story from an interesting perspective, and would be worth seeing even without Close’s star power.

4. Bernhardt/Hamlet – As a fan of both Sarah Bernhardt and William Shakespeare, I knew I had to see this show. This is probably Theresa Rebeck’s best play to date, and the cast was superb. Janet McTeer was deservedly praised as Bernhardt, but Dylan Baker was also wonderful as the legendary French actor Constant Coquelin, and Jason Butler gave a memorable portrayal of the playwright Edmond Rostand.

3. Pygmalion – Bedlam theatre company’s productions are sometimes hit-or-miss, but they are generally memorable even when they don’t entirely succeed. This year’s re-imagining of Shaw’s most popular play definitely qualifies as a hit, though. The immersive first act led into an exploration of not just class, but also race, ethnicity, and assimilation, all in the frantic Bedlam style in which performers play multiple characters to hilarious effect.

2. Twelfth Night – What happened to musicals this year? All of my top ten picks were straight plays this year, with the exception of Shaina Taub’s musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which she co-created with director Kwame Kwei-Armah as part of the Public Works program, but came back in a new production this summer as a part of the regular Shakespeare in the Park season. Taub’s songs are inspired by Shakespeare’s text, but not usually direct settings of his poetry, in spite of the fact that Twelfth Night already contains multiple songs. Her lyrics fit in with the Bard’s play beautifully, and her performance as Feste was equally delightful.

1. Travesties – To me, the most delightful production this year, however, was Roundabout’s revival of Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties. As a playwright, I’ve always admired Stoppard’s skill in weaving together the stories of James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin, and Tristan Tzara into a rollicking farce that also makes us think and feel in new ways. Perhaps because this production was directed by a fellow playwright, Patrick Marber, it was able to encompass both the profundity and goofiness of Stoppard’s writing. A cast that included Tom Hollander, Scarlett Strallen, and Sara Topham also seemed exceptionally sympathetic to Stoppard’s ambitious vision.

So that’s my list. Here’s to an even better year of New York theatre in 2019!