Top Ten Lists of Top Ten Theater in 2012

Top Ten Theater of 2012. Shows in (or likely to be in) Top Ten lists of theater, from left: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (top); 4,000 Miles; Detroit; One Man, Two Guvnors; Falling
Top Ten Theater of 2012. Shows in (or likely to be in) Top Ten lists of theater, from left: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (top); 4,000 Miles; Detroit; One Man, Two Guvnors; Falling

Here are the ten best plays or musicals that opened (mostly in New York) in 2012, according to 10 critics, including me.

First, a caveat: There are many good reasons why people complain about Top 10 lists, especially about the theater.

  1. Theater goes by seasons, not by years, so these lists offer selections from two half-seasons.
  2. How can you rank a Broadway musical for kids above or under a cutting-edge downtown theater piece? These are completely different experiences.
  3.  Why ten? Suppose there weren’t ten that you loved? It happens. Or what if you loved 20; how arbitrary is it to shunt aside half of your favorites?
  4.   There are thousands of shows that open in New York every year, some of startling originality or at least great promise, but they aren’t in the running because critics don’t have time to see them.  Most critics have a mandate to see the same 100 or so shows with the biggest budgets and the longest runs, with only an occasional detour.
  5.  Most of the shows have closed, so what’s the point? Meanwhile shows you can see aren’t eligible because they opened in an earlier year.

I bet I could come up with five more  reasons why top ten lists are pointless – and have a solid top ten list!

And I bet people would read my list – which is why editors like them so much.

Ben Brantley, New York Times (slideshow)

1. Cock (He calls it “Cockfight Play”)

2. Harper Regan

3. Mies Julie

4. Neutral Hero

5. Once

6. One Man, Two Guvnors

7. Peter and the Starcatcher

8. Sorry

9. Then She Fell

10. Cate Blanchett’s Uncle Vanya

Charles Isherwood, New York Times

1, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

2. Detroit

3. The Piano Lesson

4. Title and Deed

5. The Iceman Cometh (Chicago)

6. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (Hartford)

7. Golden Boy

8. Disgraced

9. Annie Baker’s Uncle Vanya

10. One Man, Two Guvnors

Scott Brown, New York Magazine

  1. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
  2. Tribes
  3. Sorry
  4. Death of A Salesman
  5. Cock
  6. (He cheats here and puts three plays in one, calling them the “black box configurations.”) Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present…, the Debate Society’s Blood Play, and the Mad Ones’ Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War
  7. Detroit
  8. Annie Baker’s Uncle Vanya
  9. (Cheating again, under “the unmusicals”) Peter and the Starcatcher; The Old Man and the Old Moon; Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812; and One Man, Two Guvnors

10. Clybourne Park


 Richard Zoglin, Time Magazine

1. 4000 Miles

2. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

3. Forbidden Broadway Alive and Kicking

4. End of the Rainbow

5. Louis CK on Tour

6. Grace

7. A Christmas Story The Musical

8. One Man Two Guvnors

9. Detroit

10. Annie

John Lahr of the New Yorker

1. Golden Boy

2. Death of A Salesman

3. Peter and the Starcatcher

4. Title and Deed

5. Timon of Athens

6. Tribes

7. Kevin Spacey in Shakespeare’s “Richard III.”

8. Clybourne Park

9. The Whale

10. The Piano Lesson

Mark Kennedy of Associated Press (He called this top ten “moments” but it’s mostly plays)

1. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

2. Once

3. Clybourne Park

4. James Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors

5. Neil Patrick Harris as Tony Award host

6. Kevin Spacey as Richard III at BAM

7. If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet”:

8. the death of Marvin Hamlisch
9. A Christmas Story
10. Forbidden Broadway Alive and Kicking
1. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
2. Giant
3.One Man, Two Guvnors
4. Death of A Salesman
5. Tribe
6. Newsies
7. Rapture, Blister, Burn
8.The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
9. The Heiress
10. Once

1. Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

2. The Piano Lesson

3. Tribes

4.Golden Boy
5. We Are Proud To Present A Presentation…
6. The Material World
7. A Map of Virtue
8. Hurt Village
9. The Twenty-Seventh Man
10. 3C
(David Cote: 1 Golden Boy, 2. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. 3. Death of a Salesman. 4. One Man, Two Guvnors. 5. Annie Baker’s Uncle Vanya. 6. Glengarry Glen Ross. 7. Detroit. 8. Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. 9. A Map of Virtue. 10. If There Is, I Haven’t Found It Yet)
(weasels out of commitment by making the list alphabetical)
As You Like It
Clybourne Park
Death of A Salesman
4000 Miles
The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
Golden Boy
One Man, Two Guvnors
The Piano Lesson
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Jonathan Mandell (Me)
Since I’m aggregating these lists, I can do what I want, so I’ve created three lists.
First, a list of top 10 shows of 2012 YOU CAN STILL SEE (as of this writing), since that’s less frustrating for the readers:

Forced to pick the top 10 shows specifically ON BROADWAY in 2012, my list would look something like this:

  1. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  2. Death of A Salesman
  3. One Man, Two Guvnors
  4. The Lyons
  5. The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
  6. Ghost
  7. A Christmas Story
  8. Clybourne Park
  9. Once
  10. Newsies
So, having given you these two lists, I am now freed up from worrying about my personal favorites being too obscure or unpopular/popular. Here now are my Top 10 New York Theater of 2012:
  1. Detroit.

This play by Lisa D’Amour takes place in a suburb of what is probably Detroit, but it could be any run-down first-generation suburb that began with hopefulness and street signs named after Nature. It is one of the few shows on a New York stage this year to address the effects of a faltering economy, and, while grounded in our current reality, it is also funny, dark and surreal,  with a spot-on cast. Amy Ryan and David Schwimmer play a couple just hanging on who befriend new next-door neighbors Sarah Sokolovic and Darren Pettie who are even worse off.

The play has its flaws. I pick it as number one because 1. It was entertaining and timely at the same time and 2. I want to give some recognition to the theater that presented it, Playwrights Horizons, whose other impressive play this year, “The Whale” I could just as easily put in my top 10. This is a theater unafraid of presenting new work.

2. Falling

Deanna Jent, who is the mother of an autistic child, delivers a compelling and unsentimental portrait of a family dealing with a grown-up aggressive son, with a stand-out performance by an a actor previously known for her roles in musicals, Julia Murney.

 3. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

If this is not my favorite Edward Albee play, there is still great pleasure in the wit and intensity of the writing 50 years after its Broadway debut, and the masterful acting of the four performers in this production, including the playwright Tracy Letts.

4. Harrison, TX

A triptych of plays taking place in the fictional Texas town of Harrison, by the under-rated playwright Horton Foote, who will be represented on Broadway this season with a revival of A Trip To Bountiful starring Cicely Tyson and Cuba Gooding, Jr.

 5. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

Dramatizing a story from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” the  talented Dave Malloy created the most inviting example of immersive theater I’ve seen in ages (unlike “Sleep No More,” I didn’t sneeze once!).

6.. 4000 Miles.

This play by the amazing Amy Herzog presents a simple, soulful and affecting encounter with a out-0f-sorts young man reconnecting with his grandmother, played by the wonderful Mary Louise Wilson.

7. Death of A Salesman

I compared this fifth production of Arthur Miller’s everyman tragedy to “Mad Men” with which it shares some things. But there is none of the ironic distance in “Death of A Salesman,” which speaks more to our tough times with its tale of an average man who fights off disillusion and defeat with spirited American delusion. But even if it were not so timely, the play derives its continued power because the audience identifies with the authenticity and intensity of the relationships.

8. Ghost.

I enjoyed this short-lived show for the cutting-edge technology and design, and I don’t care who knows.

9. An Interrogation Primer.

This was a solo show at the Fringe, in which an actor performed an essay written by an actual military interrogator in Iraq. It was compelling theater, in which the performer subtly showed the toll the experience took, and it only lasted 35 minutes.

10. The Navigator

Eddie Antar’s surreal comedy imagined what would happen if your GPS car navigator not only had a mind of her own, but was also clairvoyant. This is just the kind of short-lived, no-budget, Off-Off (independent) jewel of a play that lucky intrepid theatergoers discover on their own, gone long before end-of-year top-ten lists come out, and remembered long after.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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