My ten favorite shows on New York stages in 2014 were all plays, although one felt like a musical. They were mostly presented Off-Broadway, although one took place in a hospital. Only a few are still running, one of them for just a few days more. If the list has more experimental and less universally crowd-pleasing work than what was on my list last year, my choices in 2014 tend to be more plugged into the world outside the theater doors.
1. Disgraced and The Invisible Hand – open-ended; running through January 4, 2015
There are plenty of people who didn’t care for “Disgraced,” Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a dinner party on the Upper East Side that turns nasty, seeing it as too much like a lecture, too cynical or too contrived. There are even reasons for me to leave it off entirely from a list of 2014, because it debuted on Lincoln Center in 2012 (a production to which I was not invited), before its transfer this year to Broadway.
But this first play by a major new voice on the American stage manages to be both dramatically satisfying and politically important, confronting us with our assumptions and pieties about the culture clash that is defining our era. “Disgraced” is a play that sparks conversation even among those who don’t like it.
With “The Invisible Hand,” which opened this week at New York Theatre Workshop, the playwright is in some ways even more daring, turning the story of a kidnapped American banker in Pakistan into a lesson in economics and morality.
2. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – open-ended
This adaptation of a beloved book about a teenage savant who solves a mystery and discovers the world was such a masterpiece of movement and design that I keep thinking it was a musical.
Belgian director Ivo van Hove adapted Ingmar Bergman’s television miniseries about the life of a marriage. The unusual staging itself helped the audience explore the meaning of intimacy.
4. Straight White Men – running through December 14
What at first promises to be an obvious satire of the defacto ruling class turns out to Young Jean Lee’s serious but always playful look at the way a father and his three grown sons are adapting to a changing world.
5. To The Bone and My Mañana Comes
Although by different authors at different theaters, these two plays felt almost like a double feature. “To The Bone” by Lisa Ramirez (who also performed in the play) looked at the lives of immigrant chicken factory workers in upstate New York. “My Manana Comes” by Elizabeth Irwin looked at the lives of the kitchen help, most of them immigrants, in an Upper East Side restaurant. Both were wonderfully directed and well-acted works of theater that lift a curtain (actually neither had a curtain) on the lives of these largely invisible New Yorkers.
At the end of Caryl Churchill’s dazzling experimental play, theatergoers had spent two hours watching 15 actors portray 100-plus characters in more than 60 scenes, some as short as a few seconds. Yes, this was as much a triumph of the stage manager and prop masters as the actors, but it was eye-opening to realize how much we can figure out from a single moment.
A satisfying revival of Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize winning play about a happily married couple who learn that their best friends are decoupling, offering shaded, understated, and stimulating insights not just into marriage but how even a slight shift of perception can upend our basic assumptions.
Director Lyndsey Turner revived Sophie Treadwell’s haunting 1928 play, inspired by the murder trial of housewife Ruth Snyder, who enlisted a corset salesman to do in her husband. The machine-line design emphasized the main character’s empty, mechanical life.
Robert O’Hara’s collection of ten often over-the-top, hilarious, satiric and seemingly disconnected scenes offers an authentic-feeling picture of growing up black and gay.
For the first time in almost half a century, playwright Edward Albee gave permission to perform his 1959 absurdist play about racism, which climaxes in the dying blues singer being denied admittance to a whites only hospital in the South. Last seen in New York on Broadway in 1968, the play was staged at the beginning of 2014 by a new company called New Brooklyn Theater in a ground-floor room of Interfaith Hospital in Bedford Stuyvesant, as part of an effort by the community to keep the hospital from being shut down. It was a demonstration of the potential power that theater still has to change the world.